When it comes to step-free access to public buildings, trains and buses, there can be little objection to universal provision. Who hasn’t struggled up steps with a suitcase or push chair? If, from tomorrow, you had to use a wheelchair, wouldn’t you want to continue using trains without booking ahead for assistance (and worrying whether an assistant will actually materialise at each station where you board or alight)?
Greater Anglia is phasing in new Stadler trains on the Cambridge to Ipswich and other cross-country services. They’re ‘bi-modes’, which means they can use either an overhead power supply or their own diesel engine. But the most innovative feature is something less geeky: level boarding from the platform. A low floor and retractable step that bridges the gap between the train and the platform enables roll-on access for wheelchairs, pushchairs and suitcases.
This allows people to get on and off more quickly; train stopping times are shorter, meaning faster journeys and increased railway capacity. Everyone benefits. So, why isn’t it a universal feature of British railways?
The reasons are mostly technical: platforms have been built to a variety of standards for height and clearance; carriages would have to be narrower so as not to scrape against curved platforms; and undercarriages need to be tall enough to contain all the electro-mechanical stuff, from engines to sewage tanks.
But, as Stadler has proven, these are just excuses for inaction. Had railway designers prioritised level boarding when the Disability Discrimination Act was passed in 1995, it would be a feature of all new trains being delivered now, from Azumas on the East Coast Mainline to Thameslink trains.
Why don’t all railway stations have step-free access to all platforms? Again, because it has never been a high priority to fund its provision. Whittlesford station should soon get lifts (hopefully deep enough to fit more than one bicycle, unlike the ones Network Rail installed at Cambridge station). But many other stations across the region are still waiting.
If this matters to you (and it should), ask your MP to demand more money for the Access For All programme.
This article was first published in the Cambridge Independent on 28 August 2019.