Level Boarding: Final Thoughts
This is the final part of the level boarding series, which aims to summarise and offer context to the existence of level boarding on London’s railways, as well set the stage for further dialog with the rail industry to lobby for its expansion.
From these discussions, one can see that London still has a very long way to go before achieving level boarding at all its step-free stations. Still, it is important to consider the current state that London is at in terms of rail accessibility. Most of the barriers to level boarding, and step-free access, are usually blamed on the sheer age of the mainline railways and the Underground, the bulk of which were completed many decades before accessibility was a concern to railway planners.
With its first mainline railway opening in 1836 and the first section of the Underground opening in 1863, London is the world’s pioneer in urban and suburban rail transit. Unfortunately, this does mean that we are permanently playing catch-up and deliver a 21st century-level service with a largely 19th century foundation. New systems, like the fast-growing Delhi Metro, are able to inject accessibility into the design of their networks and offer a completely independent step-free experience.
It is, understandably, extremely frustrating to compare the accessibility of London’s rail network to that of these newer systems, or even some older systems such as Barcelona that started adapting their network way before London. However, it is useful to look at how London was before in order to see how much work has been done, and with that be able to see the progress that can be achieved in the coming years. And so, here is a timeline showing some the major milestones regarding step-free access and level boarding in London.
1993- London fire brigade lifts ban on wheelchairs in London Underground due to fire safety
1998 – RVAR 1998 sets accessibility standard for the Underground.
First instance of level boarding on the mainline network when the Heathrow branch opens
1999 – Jubilee line extension opens, bringing level boarding and full step-free access to the Underground for the first time
2007 – First instance of level boarding on an existing step-free station on the Underground (London Bridge on Northern line via platform humps)
2010 – First section of the Overground to get level boarding (parts of the East London Line)
2012 – First use of manual boarding ramps on the Underground
2014 – Turn-up-and-Go introduced on the Overground
2017 – First instance of level boarding on existing non-TfL mainline network (Thameslink core)
From this, it is clear that a lot of progress has been made to improve accessibility over the past 25 years, when wheelchair users were not even allowed to go on the Underground (not that it would make much difference as there were barely any step-free-to-platform stations, no level boarding and no use of manual boarding ramps).
All in all, London did take a big step forward when deciding to adapt the Underground and retrofit accessibility into it, instead of leaving it frozen in time and promoting other forms of transport. That is the approach that the Paris Metro took, which currently roughly mirrors the Underground in 1999, with no long-term plans to adapt its existing stations.
And so, where are we now?
Our mainline railways are undergoing widespread changes, with the gradual introduction of new accessible trains around the capital as well as a brand new fully accessible line through Central London (Elizabeth Line). Unfortunately, the overall accessibility experience has not improved on the majority of the network due to staffing cuts and insufficient training. This means that despite having more step-free stations, the fact that level boarding is so rare means that any unstaffed station or train immediately becomes inaccessible to a wheelchair user, no matter how step-free a station or train claims to be.
A lot of campaigns right now, by both unions and passengers, are fighting to make sure that staffing is guaranteed on every service and increased at stations. However, seeing that Thameslink services now run virtually unstaffed shows that rail bosses are keen on steadily trimming staff numbers to increase profits.
That is why I wanted to highlight the other possible solution: adopting level boarding measures and take unreliable staffing levels out of the equation. I find it so frustrating that “step-free” as a concept on the railway basically assumes the use of manual boarding ramps, and that level boarding on the Thameslink core is seen as a “bonus” rather than a standard to strive for.
As new trains come in, inaccessible ones are retired, and train fleets become more uniform in the next 1-3 years, there is finally a chance to demand unassisted boarding at stations. Platform humps, gap fillers, and retractable platform extensions are not new technologies, and any new trains introduced now will be in service for at least 40 years. This means that the time to tackle this issue is now.
The Underground, which operates under separate regulations, does seem to have a clearer end-goal in terms of level boarding. Currently, with few exceptions, level boarding has been achieved at all step-free stations that 1) use RVAR-compliant trains, 2) do not have excessively curved platforms, 3) do not share track between trains of different sizes, and 4) do not have their platforms above the train floor.
Except for #3, which could be fixed by withdrawing one of the services, all of these factors are being improved. For example, refurbishment works for the remaining non-compliant trains will start next year, there is recent evidence that TfL will soon start works to reduce the gaps at certain sub-surface stations (more info on this when it is released), and a medium-term replacement of the rolling stock on half of the Deep Tube lines will require the rebuilding of the platform-train interface at all these stations in preparation for the installation of platform-edge doors.
The key goal with the Underground is to keep the pressure on TfL to complete these works on time (and speed some up where possible) and continue to expand the accessibility of the network. As stations become step-free, they also need to have level boarding. And in turn, there needs to be a steady stream of step-free access works, meaning that the Mayor’s pledge to have 40% of the Underground step-free by 2020 should be a mere milestone and not a main goal itself.
In conclusion, level boarding is a very complicated concept that relies on all the major components of a modern railway. Even with this complexity, we now stand in a position where the expansion of level boarding is finally feasible in the short-term. As the railways modernise, we must stand our ground and demand that everyone have the freedom to travel with dignity and with independence.