Earlier this summer, the London Assembly Transport Committee launched a consultation asking interested parties to share their views on the future of rail in London, including how to improve rail capacity, frequency and reliability to make sure that the railways are fit-for-purpose in the coming decades. For me, this was an important opportunity to voice my opinions, particularly those involving accessible transport. You can read my response below:
Dear Transport Committee,
As both a frequent rail passenger as well as the creator of a website that focuses almost exclusively on the development of step-free access in London (stepfreelondon.uk), I welcome this chance to voice my opinions about the challenges and plans associated with London’s railway network. It is also good to see all of the capital’s mainline railway services grouped together, rather than split up by franchise or service.
The main general challenges for London’s rail network are probably capacity and reliability. With the rapid rise in passenger number over the past couple of years, inner suburban routes have become saturated, with dangerous overcrowding becoming more and more common at London’s terminals and major transfer stations. Also, due to the spaghetti-like nature of London’s railway network, particularly south of the Thames, a single train failure can spell hours of delays that will promptly affect nearby services. However, within the context of accessibility, there are even more challenges that affect those with reduced mobility.
For example, many stations around London remain inaccessible to wheelchair users, due to the fact that these stations were built in Victorian times and step-free access schemes are gradually trying to remedy this. However, the rollout of step-free access works needs to be increasing, instead of receiving a £50m cut as it did for this Control Period. Even with accessible stations, the availability of staff, both on trains and at stations, remains an enormous barrier for accessible travel, as individuals dependent on assistance cannot travel if staff is not present when needed, no matter how many millions were spent on lifts and ramps.
Communication-wise, there is currently no single official resource or map that shows all of the step-free stations in the railway network, which is extremely inconvenient for anyone trying to travel outside of the TfL network. Taking into account that each train-operating company has its own policies on Turn-up-and-Go services and prior booking requirements, and that staffing levels often vary within stations in the same service, how is anyone supposed to confidently trust the rail industry to deliver a service that takes into account their schedule and needs?
Another crucial issue, and one that I will focused most on, is that of level boarding, which is when the step and gap between train and platform are reduced to less than 50 mm and 75 mm, respectively. This enables independent boarding without the need for manual boarding ramps or having to book ahead. Currently, there are exactly 15 National Rail stations, out of a total of 330 stations within the Greater London boundary, that have some sort of level boarding provision at some platforms. These are:
Heathrow (all 3 stations), Paddington, London Bridge, London Blackfriars, City Thameslink, Farringdon, St Pancras International, Canada Water, Shoreditch High Street, Hoxton, Haggerston, Dalston Junction, and Canonbury.
Even with this tiny number of stations, only platforms used by Thameslink, Heathrow Express, and East London Line Overground services have level boarding. The reason why there are so few accessible stations with level boarding is that 1) trains need to be accessible themselves, 2) all trains must have the same platform-train interface (uniform fleet) to allow for platform adaptation, 3) platforms must be largely straight to minimize the gap between train and platform, and 4) freight trains are bulky and do not allow the installation of platform humps as they are currently designed.
Compounded with the other points I have listed, people with reduced mobility currently face an overwhelming number of challenges to use a railway system that is largely hostile to them.
In the future, I think the general trend will be that more people will be using the railways, which means that frequencies, train and track capacity, and general interconnectivity will need to be improved. The planned improvements on parts of the Overground, Thameslink, SWR Windsor lines, and the future Elizabeth Line, will all alleviate some of the current capacity issues with newer trains and higher frequencies. Also, the eventual devolution of suburban rail services to TfL will allow greater overall integration and streamlining of services. But this type of improvement needs to be continuous, with schemes such as Crossrail 2 and the West London Orbital advancing on time to keep up with a rising population. With a most robustly run service, interchange stations will be most strongly affected. Stations like Clapham Junction, Finsbury Park, and Stratford, all built or expanded in a piece-wise manner as they became more popular, are increasingly inefficient at managing crowds and would benefit from redevelopment.
I therefore welcome the proposals for the upcoming Old Oak Commons station, which will offer interchanges with at least two Overground services, HS2, GWR services, and the Elizabeth Line. Also, I think this model should be extended to other stations that could become strategic interchanges, such as Brockley and Loughborough Junction, with new platforms for current Southeastern and Overground services, respectively.
Going back to accessibility, a more heavily used service on current railways will have an important effect on assistance in the future. The reason for this is the reduction of both dwell time and the timetable’s flexibility. Getting out and placing a manual boarding ramp takes time, as does holding the train doors open when trying to find a staff member that did not receive your booking. If a service is running approximately every 5 minutes or less, the timetable simply does not allow for the type of delays that are unfortunately very common with accessible bookings. And seeing how leaked documents from GTR, the UK’s biggest train operator, are instructing staff to refuse assistance to passengers if there is any risk of delaying a service, there are real concerns that the railways will become even less accessible, even as step-free access (to platform) and capacity are increased. Level boarding needs to become a priority for London, and it needs to act now before it misses an opportunity.
From now until 2020, there will be a huge number of new accessible trains replacing inaccessible ones all across the capital’s railways. These will create uniform fleets across several corridors for services run by SWR, the Overground, the Elizabeth Line, Great Northern, and Greater Anglia. However, all except one of the new train types will have high train floor heights, meaning that there will still be a step required to board the train. The exception will be Greater Anglia’s Intercity and Stansted Express trains made by Stadler Rail. These trains are meant to have a floor height that matches the UK standard (but far from universal) platform height of 915 mm, and will have automatic gap fillers that will close the gap between the train and platform, without needing to raise platform heights and restrict other trains passing through. The urgent question is: Why is every new train in the country, especially in London, not following this philosophy? And now that these other trains are in the production, delivery, or even testing phase, is there a credible pathway to achieving a similar level of accessibility once these are running?
Unfortunately, I am betting that there is no such plan except for the new Elizabeth Line section (built with high platforms), either for TfL-run or other National Rail services. This is unacceptable and needs to be addressed publicly. And with that, there needs to be an earnest focus on innovative solutions, such as setting platform humps further back and installing automatic gap fillers on them, or adapting a single coach from every new train to have a lower floor like Barcelona Rodalies services are doing to their old trains. The tired excuses repeatedly given by the rail industry as to why the railways cannot be fully accessible should not keep going unchallenged.
London’s railways are an integral part of its transport network, and as the city grows it is imperative that they develop and grow as well. I hope that the London Assembly will do everything in its power to ensure that the railways within its city will be fit-for-purpose and accessible to all.