The Tories refuse to release document which could be a nail in the coffin for ticket office closures

A visually impaired man leaning down to look at a ticket machine ticket office closures DfT
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The Tory government is refusing to release its Equality Impact Assessment (EQIA) on the ways in which rail ticket office closures will impact chronically ill and disabled people. This is because, it claims, the document being in the public domain would be ‘distracting’ for the Department for Transport (DfT). However, a campaign group has hit back – and will be asking the government watchdog to investigate the DfT.

Disabled people’s rights ignored in ticket office closures

The Canary has been documenting the ongoing scandal of the plans to close ticket offices. The Tories and train operators have been in cahoots to close them across the country. Train operators are claiming that they’ll redeploy ticket office staff on stations. However, research by the Association of British Commuters (ABC) has shown this not to be true. For example, as the Canary previously reported, under the plans:

West Midlands Trains would have a total of 137 unstaffed stations (94% of its network), and East Midlands Railway would have 90 (87% of its network).

Ticket office closures will hit chronically ill and disabled people the hardest. Britain’s rail network is already inaccessible a lot of the time. As a report by an independent government regulator found, when disabled people booked assistance for their journeys:

  • 15% of people did not get it to alight the train.
  • 16% did not get it to the wheelchair area.
  • 16% did not get assistance “to and from connecting services”.
  • 17% did not get it to get “in/out of the station”.

On top of this, ticket machines are often inaccessible. Caroline Coster, a disabled woman, told BBC News:

Obviously [having] no hands makes putting numbers in and choosing options very difficult. Putting a debit card in and taking it out is a real challenge and I can’t pick up a ticket either.

Closing the ticket offices risks removing my right to turn up and go, like everyone else.

Read on...

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However, just to make matters worse the DfT is refusing to release its EQIA on how ticket office closures will affect chronically ill and disabled people like Coster.

The DfT: what is it trying to hide?

Campaign group Transport for All has been trying to force the DfT to release the document. Its EQIA should look at the impact of ticket office closures across the whole of the UK’s rail network. Transport for All submitted a Freedom of Information (FOI) request to the DfT, asking for the document. However, the department refused to release it, saying it was a draft document and that ministers needed a “safe space away from public scrutiny” to formulate policy. So, Transport for All then appealed the decision.

Once again, the DfT refused to release the EQIA. It repeated the line about a “safe space”, also noting that publishing the document would be:

distracting for the Department who would have to deal with any queries about it…

Overall, the DfT said that it was more in the public interest not to release the EQIA than to release it. Transport for All said:

We originally submitted this Freedom of Information request when the consultation went live, on 11th July, as we strongly believed the information should be made available to disabled people responding to the consultation. While train operators did eventually publish their individual impact assessments (only after being put under threat of legal action from disabled campaigners), these only pertain to individual station closures and do not identify cumulative impacts.

The group is now going to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO). This is the government’s independent regulator for information. The ICO will investigate whether the DfT has breached its obligations in not releasing the EQIA.

It’s likely that the DfT is refusing to release the EQIA because its findings show that chronically ill and disabled people will be negatively impacted by ticket office closures – because that’s exactly what train operators have been forced to admit.

Train operators admit there’s a problem

As the Mirror reported, train operators have done their own impact assessments on how ticket office closures will affect chronically ill and disabled people. Many of them admit their decisions will have negative effects on marginalised groups. For example, Transport for All noted that train operator Northern’s impact assessment found:

  • Staff capacity to provide assistance: Staff “will be at a station for an average of 29 hours per week compared to 73 hours currently staffed by Ticket Office colleagues” resulting in a reduction in “Passenger Assistance capacity”
  • Safety: “Disabled people are at greater risk of incidents of abuse and unwanted sexual behaviours” and “The lack of colleagues presence may increase personal security and safety concerns when travelling.”
  • Hazards for blind and visually impaired passengers: “49% of train stations in Great Britain have either no or only partial tactile surfaces on operational platforms. This means visually impaired customers who cannot navigate stations independently may currently rely on station colleagues to assist. A reduction in colleagues members may adversely impact them.”
  • Turn Up And Go: “Over a third of disabled rail passengers in Great Britain do not book book assistance in advance. Instead, passengers tend to depend on colleagues at stations for assistance. A reduction in the number of colleagues to meet this on-the-spot support request has the potential to negatively impact.”

As the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers’ (RMT‘s) general secretary Mick Lynch said:

The fact that train companies own equality impact assessments show the detrimental effect of ticket office closures means the whole endeavour must be scrapped. The purpose of closing ticket offices is to open the way for the widespread de-staffing of stations up and down the country.

Ticket office closures: the scandal rumbles on

So, with train operators admitting disabled people are at risk, but the government refusing to release its own assessment, it’s unclear just where this leaves the ticket office closures. However, a real-world example of what could happen if the plans go ahead has just come to light – and the train operator’s response undermines the ticket office closures.

As the Basildon, Canvey, and Southend Echo reported, on Tuesday 19 September a “network-wide technical issue” meant people were not able to buy tickets either online or at stations across South Essex. This follows on from an incident at Leigh station on Monday 18 September in which two ticket machines were not working, the lift was broken, and only one ticket office was open.

Local Tory MP Anna Firth had previously raised the issue of c2c’s ticket problems in parliament. She said:

I am delighted to have recently been assured by ministers in the Commons that Leigh and Chalkwell stations will both be having their number of staff hours increased, and will continue to campaign for better, more effective transport for the people of Southend.

Given that it’s clearly ridiculous to rely on ticket machines all the time (when they go down on a regular basis), those in charge clearly think the answer in South Essex is to put more staff on the ground. It’s unlikely that the irony of this will be lost on chronically ill and disabled people. Meanwhile nationally, the Tories and train operators are still claiming that closing ticket offices is the right thing to do.

Featured image via Sky News – YouTube

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