Local Transport Minister Norman Baker explains how the government is working towards a public transport system that is accessible to all travellers, regardless of ability
Mobility is something that most people take for granted. Whether we walk, cycle or take the bus to the local shops, or travel longer distances by car, train or coach, we have a range of transport options for most of the journeys we take in our everyday lives.
But many of Britain’s disabled and older people have problems finding accessible, affordable and comfortable ways to travel, and this can strike home to able-bodied people too, as I found out when I first became a father and suddenly realised the enormous problems associated with wheeling a new baby around when presented by endless sets of stairs on the London Underground.
Even the simplest journeys can be a challenge, and as a result many people are denied the independence and opportunities that full mobility provides. That is why our vision is to deliver a transport system that is fully accessible to every person in this country.
Meeting the requirements
At present 62 per cent of buses and around 46 per cent of the national heavy rail fleet meet modern requirements. But by the end of the next Parliament the government expects all trains and buses – and coaches used on scheduled services – to be fully accessible for disabled travellers.
The rail network has been set a deadline of 2020 to reach compliance, and we are confident that it will meet this target. All new trains and trams coming into service are already compliant, and we are working with the industry to upgrade older fleets to become accessible.
Depending on the type of vehicle, bus operators have been set accessibility targets of between 2015 and 2017. The Public Service Vehicles Accessibility Regulations (PSVAR) will ensure that buses are fitted with a range of accessibility features – including low floor boarding devices; priority seats; provision for passengers in wheelchairs; and visual aids on steps and handrails. All buses will be required to be PSVAR compliant by 2017.
Of course the transition to fully accessible bus services depends to a large degree on the renewal of fleets. Because London has a relatively new fleet, 100 per cent of buses in the capital are accessible. The transition elsewhere will depend on the useful economic life of existing vehicles, but the Department for Transport will continue to monitor progress to make sure that the statutory compliance dates are met by operators.
Considering the whole journey
It is not, however, just physical access to transport vehicles that needs to be improved. We also need to consider the end-to-end journey for disabled travellers – from the moment they leave their homes to arrival at their final destinations.
Therefore, we are working with transport operators and local authorities to make airports, train stations and bus interchanges more accessible – and to adapt streetscapes and pedestrian environments for disabled people. For example, the Department’s Access for All programme aims to make 148 key rail stations obstacle and step-free – with accessible routes to platforms – by 2015.
We are also improving accessibility information available through the Transport Direct journey planner. And we are keen to raise awareness of the needs of disabled passengers on public transport – so we are looking at ways to encourage more disability awareness training among staff working across transport.
Physical access is not the only barrier to travel that disabled people may face. The cost of transport is also an important issue. So to make journeys more affordable, disabled passengers are now able to travel for free off peak on buses anywhere in England, and half fare discounts are available on coaches. The Disabled Persons’ Railcard offers discounts of a third on many rail tickets.
I am a strong advocate of community transport, which does such an excellent job of providing safe and accessible transport for people who would otherwise find it difficult to get out. I recently visited a voluntary group in Sutton, Surrey that had completed 47,000 passenger trips during 2010 alone – providing a lifeline for many local people with disabilities. I want to see more community transport projects launched around the country.
Initiatives like our new Local Sustainable Transport Fund, which I recently announced, will give communities more power to develop their own plans to meet the needs of local disabled people.
Although the accessibility of transport in Britain has improved markedly over the past 20 years, we still have a long way to go before our vision for a fully accessible transport network is delivered. But that vision will move a major step forward with next year’s London Olympic and Paralympic Games, which will be the most accessible Games in history, and will act as a catalyst to boost transport accessibility across the UK.
This is the first time that the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games have been planned together right from the start – helping us to deliver new levels of accessibility. We want to use the Games to help change disabled people’s experience of public transport – and to attract and encourage disabled people who have not used public transport before. In these ways, we can leave an accessible transport legacy that will inspire change throughout the UK, and help transform the lives of disabled people in the decades to come.
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