National Rail Enquiries, run by Rail Delivery Group (the body formerly known as ATOC), co-ordinate information about the facilities at each of Britain’s 2,563 railway stations. They store such information in an antediluvian and unresponsive database, named “Knowledgebase“. They publish this information on their website. They also make it available to train operating companies (TOCs) and third-party software developers for them to do similarly.
The accessibility of the station is recorded in this database. This includes data such as the station operator’s help line number, whether and when the station is staffed, whether there’s a hearing loop, etc.
This information is crucial for disabled people to plan their journeys. As such, station operators are legally obliged to keep this information up to date. This is specified in their license, and is regulated by the Office for Rail and Road:
Train operators must provide up to date information about the accessibility of facilities and services at stations and on their trains on the National Rail Enquiries (NRE) website. This includes the NRE’s Station Journey Planner (‘Stations Made Easy‘), as well as the train operators’ own website. Train operators must provide up to date information about the accessibility of facilities and services at stations and on their trains on the National Rail Enquiries (NRE) website. This includes the NRE’s Station Journey Planner (‘Stations Made Easy‘), as well as the train operators’ own website.
(Yes, I know that says the same thing twice; so does the ORR’s website. Perhaps they were emphasising the point.)
All hunky-dory in theory – but not in practice. The problem is threefold.
- Station operators don’t make sure that accessibility information is correct, or that it is kept up to date.
- Staff find it difficult to update said information due to technical problems.
- There’s no clear definition about what the information in the database means anyway.
Step free access
Take, for example, the Knowledgebase field “Step Free Access Coverage”. This can have the values “wholeStation“, “partialStation“, “allPlatforms“, “noPartOfStation” or “unknown“.
To me, this is straightforward. It should say which bits of the station can be accessed without having to go up or down a step. However that’s not how many TOCs use this field. They use it as some approximate of “wheelchair friendliness“.
Some examples: In Northern’s Disabled People’s Protection Policy, the stations at Appleby, Burley Park, Cattal, Dent, Garsdale, Hexham, Knaresborough, Newcastle, Oxenholme, Ravenglass, Ribblehead, Skipton and Wakefield Kirkgate are all down as “Partial step-free access“; but I know it is possible to get to all parts of all these stations without going up or down a step. When I raised this with Northern, they said;
it may be the methodology used to categorise step free access that is the issue here. For example, if there is a ramp and it is over a certain level of steepness or if the step free route between platforms is over a certain length then it can result in a ‘Partial’ classification.
For Aviemore station, Scotrail say “<Coverage>noPartOfStation</Coverage>”. This is interpreted particularly starkly on their mobile website:
Screenshot of Aviemore station facilities page on the Scotrail website
I defy anybody to work out whether Aviemore station has step-free access based on that. Scotrail’s Assisted Travel team can’t. On September 25th after a long period on hold they said “I will have to find this out for you as it is not clear from the website” and offered to email me – but never did. When I rang again on 5th October, after another long period on hold they said “I was speaking with my supervisor and it doesn’t look like it is accessible on both sides.”
It has since transpired that there is full wheelchair access to all parts of Aviemore station; all parts of the station are accessible without having to go up or down a single step. (Getting from platform to platform without steps involves a long walk by road so it’s generally best to make sure you get dropped off at the right entrance for the train you’re wanting to catch.) So why does it say “Step free access coverage: No part of station“? Scotrail’s Head of Access and Inclusion eventually told me:
Mr Paulley It says ‘No’ to Step-free coverage simply because one cannot access all platforms from one single entry point.
So that makes complete sense, then. Honest.
They have since said:
ScotRail is experiencing difficulties with updating the ‘Step-free access coverage’ section due to a technical issue with the NRE website, which is only allowing for ScotRail to tick ‘Yes/No’ for this field without the option to edit text. This is an issue that can only be addressed by Rail Delivery Group, which ScotRail has requested be addressed as quickly as possible.
The Definition of Step Free
I thought: enough’s enough; let’s find out what “Step Free Access Coverage” actually means. As Rail Delivery Group hosts Knowledgebase and its schema, I thought they would be able to tell me what that field means. So I asked them in a “Freedom of Information” request (though they aren’t subject to the Freedom of Information Act):
Knowledgebase has a field for “step free access coverage”. Stations are variously listed as having “full”, “partial” or “no” step-free access.
Please provide me with the definitions and criteria for these descriptors.
For example, what does “step free” mean? Does it mean that there are literally no steps, such that a station can still be wheelchair inaccessible e.g. through narrow passageways or over-steep slopes? Or are these other factors (though not about steps) included when considering how to categorise stations in this respect?
Also: what does “full”, “partial” or “none” mean? Does “full” mean fully compliant with Part M(1) and the PRM-TSI(2), or does it mean there are no steps? I know of a station where level access is available to all parts of the station but the TOC has marked it as “partially” step free because it’s a very long way round from platform to platform (or a barrow crossing), yet another TOC has marked another station with similar access as “none”.
Please provide the “official” definitions of what this field and the options in it actually mean.
(1“Part M” is Part M of the Building Regulations, which detail e.g. angles of ramps that would comply with the accessibility requirements of such. 2“PRM-TSI” is the “Technical Standards for Interoperability: Persons with reduced mobility“, which is the European Union’s legislation specifying accessibility of railway infrastructure.)
In answer to your question regarding the definitions of ‘step-free’ access to stations, this is defined by each TOC separately. So, as you point out, one TOC might state ‘full step-free access’ whereas another will state only ‘partially’ because of things like barrow crossings or physically long step-free routes. These station pages are also updated by individuals who may use variations in their terms used. In order for you to get a more accurate answer for each, my advice is to contact each TOC separately.
TL;DR: “station operators are free to interpret it in any way they like and make it up as they go along” and “if you want to know what Step Free means you’ll have to ask each station operator“.
There are 31 train operating companies in the UK, most of whom operate stations; and Network Rail operate some stations themselves. I wouldn’t mind betting that the accessibility information has been provided by over 50 different people, with over 50 different interpretations as to what precisely “step free access coverage” means.
The effect is discriminatory
The problem is this information is crucial. For me to be able to travel to or from a station, or to change at it, I have to know that I will be able to enter / exit / change there without having to go up and down steps.
The reason I was looking up Aviemore was because I am thinking of going on respite care to Badaguish. I don’t have a car and I don’t drive, so trains are best for me. Badaguish’s website says “Nearest train station: Aviemore, with taxis available to Badaguish”. But how was I supposed to know whether I can physically use Aviemore station? I couldn’t trust the accessibility information, which is self-contradictory in any case; and Scotrail’s help line uses the same information, leaving them similarly confused.
Any non-disabled person can have relative certainty that they can use any station in Britain. But only 20% of stations are fully accessible. The very least the industry could do is make sure that said access information is standardised, accurate and comprehensive. But they don’t.
Finding accurate and comprehensive information for a station is like trying to plait fog.
Disabled travelers suffer difficult and frustrating bookings as a result – or can’t even face trying to book in the first place.