Australia Misses 20-Year Public Transport Accessibility Target as Many Train and Tram Networks Fail People With Disabilities

By Alison Xiao
Posted Jan. 16, 2023
All of Australia’s train and tram stations should have been fully compliant with accessibility standards by the end of 2022
Only 50 per cent of the country’s network is accessible, according to Sterling Infrastructure’s Susie Pascoe

Sarah-Jane Staszak’s public transport experience is filled with small tricks and workarounds.

One trick is using the footplates of her wheelchair to prop open train doors – a strategy she now always employs, after a guard forgot to help her get off the train a few years ago.

“When you have a disability, you get quite creative and you come up with your own little workarounds,” Ms Staszak told 7.30.

“You end up having to take deep breaths and get very good at acceptance.”

Ms Staszak woke up paralysed after routine back surgery nine years ago. She relies on her local station at Blackheath, in the New South Wales Blue Mountains

Since mid-2022, the ramp she once used has been blocked off while the government upgrades the station.

“I do get a bit disheartened. It would be ideal if they could maintain some sense of accessibility while they were doing the construction,” she said.

Currently, the only way of accessing the platform is the stairs, meaning it’s effectively closed to Ms Staszak, to others with mobility issues, and to families with prams.

The upgrade will be beneficial once completed, with three new lifts to be added as part of the NSW government’s Transport Access Program.

Legislation passed 20 years ago by the federal government (Disability Standards for Accessible Public Transport) called for all stations and stops to be fully compliant with accessibility standards by the end of last year.

But that target – which covers services like access paths, ramps, toilets and tactile tiling – hasn’t been met.

“Across the country, we would be at best 50 per cent compliance to those standards,” said Susie Pascoe, CEO of Sterling Infrastructure –
a company that delivers services across Australia’s rail network and assesses the accessibility of stations and walkways around trains.

In NSW, a third of train and ferry stations aren’t independently accessible, while that figure is around 40 per cent for Queensland Rail and Western Australia’s train stations.

In Victoria, 73 per cent of tram stops don’t meet the accessibility standards.

The ‘unconscionable’ state of Australia’s train stations
For Adam Bowes, the excruciating pain he gets in his back far outweighs the nightmare of trying to navigate the city’s train network.

National Inclusive Transport Advocacy Network (NITAN) deputy chair Richard Witbreuk said it was a “sad indictment” on not only state governments, but also transport service providers that the 20-year deadline hasn’t been met.

“When you have a system like a public transport system, that doesn’t work for everybody, it’s very isolating,” he said.

Australia has 960 train stations, and by the end of 2017, each state was required to have ensured that 90 per cent of their stations met accessibility standards.

Mr Witbreuk said being unable to properly access public transport meant access to jobs were cut off, and left people dependent on others to help with shopping or meeting up with friends.

“And you have to ask yourself, why? Why do people with disability have to put up with substandard transport options?”

It’s ‘unachievable’ to make all stations accessible
The federal government is working on reforms to the 2002 legislation, set to be released later this year.

A spokesperson for federal Infrastructure Minister, Catherine King, said the government was “fully committed to further removing discrimination for people with disability”.

“The most recent review – in 2021, found that there have been major improvements and investment in accessible public transport,” the spokesperson said.

Some in the sector are calling for changes to make the accessibility requirements more flexible.

Ms Pascoe works with operators to achieve the targets. She said the issue with meeting the requirements came down to cost.

“It is unrealistic to expect that every station across the country can be made fully compliant in every part. The cost of doing so is unachievable,” she said.

“[It’s] really important to understand – what the prioritisation looks like. What does good look like, not what does perfect look like.”

Simple train journey can be ‘exhausting’

While Ms Staszak waits to see improvements across the network, she is trying to stay hopeful.

“We have had progress, and that’s something that I do have gratitude for.”

The NSW government said a free accessible taxi to another station was available for customers who weren’t able to use Blackheath Station.

In order to catch the train, Ms Staszak drives her own accessible van to Katoomba Station. The vehicle often requires her to take up two parking spots – another workaround.

She says there are still issues with the trains themselves, especially with the Blue Mountains train line using an older fleet.

“It’s not the most pleasant experience being stuck in the vestibule, in the way of everybody getting on and off the train, and sitting next to the toilet,” she said.

“If there was an emergency and we will have to get off at a station, I can’t be guaranteed that I’d be able to get off the station.

“It does get exhausting having to do that every, every day, every minute of the day – having to do your research,” she said.

Under the legislation, trains and trams have until 2032 to comply with the standards for accessibility.

“I have hope. But I also have not a huge confidence in the belief that – I’m going to see [full accessibility] happen in my day,” Ms Staszak said.

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