Several funding sources are available in the UK for improving rail accessibility at stations. Interventions, however, must be prioritised. This is not always easy, as disabilities come in many forms. We helped the UK Department for Transport (DfT) develop a rail accessibility framework to aid the prioritisation of funding for accessibility improvements at stations across England and Wales.
The Office for Disability Issues estimates that around 11.6 million people in the UK have a disability, 2.3 million of whom report difficulties accessing transport with their disability. An accessible network not only benefits those registered with a disability, but also ensures that those with young children, carrying heavy baggage, or who do not speak English can use the railway. There are four key stages to implementing accessibility improvements on the rail network.
Stage 1: Sourcing funds
There are several funding sources available in the UK for improving rail accessibility at stations, including the DfT’s Access for All and Minor Works Budget, as well as specific franchise-related funds such as the Station Improvement Fund and the National Station Improvement Programme. However, the aim of reducing the public spending deficit, the absence of access to Network Rail’s Regulated Asset Base financing, and other constraints, mean that the funding landscape is heavily constrained, making intervention across the entire network impossible at present.
Stage 2: Identifying the improvement
Interventions must, therefore, be prioritised. This is difficult, as disabilities come in many forms and are not always visible or obvious (see p. 16-17). Although a disability is often associated with lack of mobility, the Office for Disability Issues estimates that 44% of people registered as disabled in the UK have no mobility issues at all, but rather have communication, incontinence or ‘other’ problems. Catering for such a variety of issues can cause conflict. For example, those with visual impairments are helped by tactile paving signalling danger, but makes life harder for people in wheelchairs.
It is vital to take the local station context into account, as for example, the presence of a hospital nearby may mean increased numbers of mobility-impaired passengers. Another difficulty is the inefficiency of intervening at single stations, as passengers need to access and exit the network. Any approach should therefore consider both origin and destination.
Stage 3: Implementing the improvement
Once the funding has been sourced and the improvement identified, the implementation of the intervention can still be complex. Good practice is to consider timing the improvement as part of normal maintenance works, causing less disruption and saving labour costs.
Stage 4: Communicating the improvement
The implemented improvements need to be communicated effectively. This can be difficult, as the target audience is unlikely to be keeping abreast of industry improvements; they have already decided the network is not for them. An example of effective improvement communication was London’s Underground (LU) decision of adopting roundels with wheelchairs for fully accessible stations on network maps, so that it is quick and easy to see which stations are accessible. This solution is not easy to replicate, as the reach of the LU maps is much wider than most rail networks, and has some flaws, such as not indicating facilities at stations which are not fully accessible.
DfT, aware of difficulties in prioritising limited funding, has recently been focusing on Stage 2. To date there has been a lack of an informed picture of accessibility across the network, making it challenging to build consensus on funding allocations between key stakeholders. To help with this, we built a Rail Accessibility Framework for stations in England and Wales.
A key part of the development of the tool was stakeholder consultation, which guided us on available data and best practices within the industry, as well as criteria that could be used for evaluating funding priorities. The tool combines disparate data concerning previous accessibility spend at stations, the existing facilities, and the station context. Weighted by factors chosen by the end user, it produces a priority list of stations for intervention, and a dynamic report card for each, displaying relevant information in a digestible format.
It is anticipated that this will feed into the Sustainable Stations Framework, a wider industry initiative being developed to enable informed funding discussions and firmer foundations for consensus in the industry, by providing an agreed, comprehensive dataset of station facilities and contexts.