By John Pring on 23rd December 2020
Information used by disabled passengers to check if a rail station is accessible is frequently wildly inaccurate, and often leads them to book travel to and from stations they cannot access, according to new research.
The research by disabled campaigner and access expert Doug Paulley shows that the accuracy of accessibility information has worsened in the two years since the problem was highlighted by the regulator, the Office of Rail and Road (ORR).
Paulleys research shows that for more than half of stations (51 per cent) across England, Scotland and Wales, the information used by the National Rail Enquiries (NRE) website on the level of step-free access is different from that held by the operators of those stations.
When it comes to the availability of staff to assist disabled passengers, the two sources differ on two-fifths of stations (38 per cent).
And when it comes to whether there is an accessible toilet at a station, the information differs for about one in six stations (16 per cent).
Two years ago, ORR said in its Improving Assisted Travel report (PDF) that the accuracy of this information was critical and that inaccurate, incomplete or unclear information can lead to assistance being booked for a disabled passenger for a journey that involves a station which is inaccessible to them.
It warned then that there were significant issues regarding differences between the information held by station operators and that available through the NRE website, which meant some bookings were designed to fail.
Paulley said such information had a direct and significant impact on disabled peoples rail travel experiences.
He has told ORR that he sees no sign of any significant push to improve the accuracy of this data, and he has offered to help it improve the data.
He told the regulator: It bothers me greatly that there is so much inaccurate station accessibility information [on the NRE website] that there has been no improvement in such and there are no apparent initiatives designed to improve the quality of information it contains.
He added: The differences are wild and who can know which are really true for any given station, if any?
As a keen and regular user of the rail system, Paulley has confirmed much of the inaccurate information from visits he has made to stations across the network.
He has contacted all the rail operators to inform them of the inaccuracies.
He told one of the operators that 30 of its step-free stations were described as not having step-free access on the NRE website, even though its own database showed they were step-free.
He added: I have personally been to some of these and can confirm that they do actually have full access.
He reminded the operator that it was an obligation of its license to ensure that station information was accurate and up-to-date.
Paulley (pictured) told Disability News Service: There have been too many occasions when I have struggled to find out station accessibility information, where I have been told inaccurate accessibility information, and where assisted travel departments have booked impossible journeys for me.
This shouldnt be possible.
The fact that station accessibility info is so poor, enough to make this happen, demonstrates a significant practical problem, but I also think it shows a systemic contempt for disabled passengers.
The industry knows that this information is lamentably inaccurate, knows that it is under a moral and licensing obligation to ensure it is right but it doesnt do so, despite much work and this being drawn to their attention over years.
He said he believed that the Rail Delivery Group (RDG) which represents the companies that run Britains railways needs to scrap the database NRE uses, and develop a new one.
And he said that train operating companies should resurvey their access information, providing accurate information about routes with photographs of access features across all their stations, with the results feeding into the new database.
An ORR spokesperson said: We agree this is an important area for improvement.
There has been progress: train companies and Network Rail are now obliged to publish a wider range of station accessibility information on their websites as well as ensure the information on the National Rail Enquiries website is up to date.
When it became safe to do so, ORR recently commenced its own detailed monitoring exercise, including station visits to check for accuracy of information and extensive information audits.
This is a large piece of work that we will continue to take forward subject to travel restrictions.
We are grateful to Mr Paulley for supplying us with the outcome of his own research, which will help inform our ongoing work.
We will continue to hold train companies and Network Rail to account for meeting their accessibility obligations.
Jacqueline Starr, RDGs chief executive, said: We want everyone to be able to access train travel easily and with dignity, including disabled people, and we are sorry when we fall short.
We are taking steps to put things right, including committing £7 million to overhaul National Rail Enquiries and ensure we provide customers with the timely and accurate information that they want.
We welcome feedback from customers and we will of course review these suggestions and make further changes where needed.