Campaigners have called on the transport secretary to ignore recommendations from the head of Network Rail that would delay tens of millions of pounds of investment in making rail stations more accessible.
The seven organisations, headed by the user-led charity Transport for All, are furious that Sir Peter Hendy, the chair of Network Rail, has recommended in a spending review that nearly £50 million allocated to the Access for All scheme should be delayed until 2019 at the earliest.
In a letter to transport secretary Patrick McLoughlin, they describe such a move as “a real backward step in terms of rail accessibility” and “grossly unfair”.
The government describes Access for All funding as “a key part of the government’s strategy to improve the accessibility of Great Britain’s railway (sic)”, and says it is “specifically targeted at providing infrastructure improvements at stations which will enable more disabled people to access the rail network”.
The letter follows revelations by Disability News Service last month that Sir Peter had recommended that Access for All funding for 2014-19 should be cut from £102 million to £55 million, with the rest carried over to the next spending period, 2019-24.
The Department for Transport is due to respond to Sir Peter’s report – which contains his detailed recommendations for “replanning” Network Rail’s investment programme for 2014-19 across England and Wales – later this year.
They say in the letter that more than 20 years have passed since disabled people secured rights to access goods and services through the Disability Discrimination Act, yet “still many of us cannot use our local train station”.
They point out that a large majority of stations still do not have lifts, tactile paving, audio-visual information, induction loops and other equipment that enables disabled people to use them, and so “great swathes of the UK rail network are no go areas for disabled people, particularly those with mobility impairments”.
They say that the Access for All fund has delivered “much needed ring fenced funding to ameliorate this situation and over the years has unlocked parts of the rail network for disabled and older citizens to use, in many cases for the first time”.
And they say the deferred funding is part of a “double blow” because of the government’s decision to scrap the small schemes access programme, which had funded improvements to 1,100 stations since it was launched in 2006, and was “crucial for smaller stations that would have never qualified for Access for All funding”.
They also warn that deferring the funding could put at risk future additional investment in improving access.
The seven organisations call on McLoughlin in the letter to reject Sir Peter’s recommendation and instead “guarantee that the Access for All fund will be able to retain and spend its full allocated budget”.
Faryal Velmi, director of Transport for All, said: “We need access improvements to happen by 2019 as they were originally planned and expected.
“It is grossly unfair that disabled and older people are being asked to defer our lives for another five years in order to ‘iron out’ previous Network Rail inefficiencies.
“Austerity has already had a disproportionately negative impact on disabled people in UK.
“Changes and deferments to schemes such as Access for All, that directly benefit us, constitute a direct attack on our rights to participate fully in society.”
Network Rail refused to explain why Sir Peter made the recommendations to defer the Access for All funding, and refused to respond to the concerns raised in the letter.
But a Network Rail spokesman said: “Following the conclusion of the Department for Transport’s consultation [on the Hendy review], we will work closely with the Department for Transport and the Office of Rail and Road to review the Access for All programme and publish a revised delivery plan.”
He added: “Sir Peter Hendy’s re-plan means that some rail upgrade projects will be delivered later than originally planned, but we remain committed to delivering the Access for All programme in full.”
(Disability News Service)