Doug Paulley

Wheelchair user and residential care user, sometimes thorn in the side of authorities.

Rail station accessibility data

 Trains  Comments Off on Rail station accessibility data
Oct 252017
 

The Rail Delivery Group‘s database “Knowledgebase” contains (among other things) all the station information used e.g. on the National Rail enquiries website, including all the station accessibility information. This data is available to everybody, but in a format only programmers can use. So with help, I’ve converted the station accessibility data (and some other key data) into a spreadsheet.

Here’s the Knowledgebase stations spreadsheet in Excel format (~2.5Mb), and here’s the Knowledgebase stations spreadsheet in .csv format (~5Mb). Here’s National Rail Enquiries Knowledgebase Data Feeds Specification (PDF, 900kb) which describes what each element (should) describe.

The spreadsheet is current as of 3rd February 2018. (My spreadsheet can update the data, but I’ve removed this function from the spreadsheets here because the update mechanism uses my username and password for the National Rail Data Portal.)

One may wish to consider:

  • the proportion of stations that have step-free access, overall and by station operator
  • the proportion of stations that have toilets compared to the proportion of stations that have disabled toilets (“NKS toilets”, after the Radar National Key Scheme) or no information about disabled toilets
  • stations that have step free access and are staffed but don’t have train ramps available
  • stations with temporarily broken lifts, and when the data on the station was last updated
  • staffed stations which don’t offer staff assistance to disabled people
  • stations with car parks but no Blue Badge spaces and/or no suitable drop off point for disabled people
  • stations with contradictory information, such as stating both “Step-free access coverage: No part of station” and “Both platforms are fully accessible from the street

And whatever else you like, really.

If you would like me to update the spreadsheet, drop me a line.

Oct 212017
 

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:

Passenger Information

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 theorybut not in practice. The problem is threefold.

    1. Station operators don’t make sure that accessibility information is correct, or that it is kept up to date.
    2. Staff find it difficult to update said information due to technical problems.
    3. 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 the Aviemore station information page on the Scotrail 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.)

Their response:

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.

Northern’s assistance booking

 Trains  Comments Off on Northern’s assistance booking
Sep 022017
 
Northern's logo turned into a sad emoticon

Arriva Rail North’s logo (corrected)

Wheelchair users travelling by train are asked to book assistance for ramps etc. But disabled people frequently experience substantial difficulties when booking, caused by train operating companies’ failures in information and procedure. 

This is a recurring problem across all train operating companies, but Carillion – the company Arriva Rail North subcontracts to make such bookings – are the worst I’ve experienced. (And that’s saying something.)

Northern and Carillion

Northern Rail’s assisted travel booking and customer relations staff were all based in Leeds. When Arriva took over the franchise, they told them all to move to a Sheffield call centre, or leave. Understandably a lot left, and took their experience and expertise with them.

Carillion's logo

Carillion’s logo

Arriva Rail North advertised their new assistance booking line as being open 24 hours, 363 days a year. They outsourced this function to Carillion, a rail infrastructure maintenance company. Carillion had never dealt with assistance booking before. The results were predictable.

Yesterday evening is a case in point. I wanted to book assistance for two simple journeys: Skipton to Hexham changing Carlisle, and Hexham to York changing Newcastle. 

The telephone call took 1 hour 6 minutes. Even then the assistance wasn’t successfully booked.

Untrained, inexperienced staff with no backup

The reason for this is that the booking staff member had never taken a booking before. He had only worked in the organisation for two weeks. He had watched colleagues booking assistance and been given the script to use, then he had been put straight onto the assistance booking line. It seemed like he had never been trained how to take bookings, and certainly not formally trained.

I was his first ever assistance booking (God help him!) There was nobody else he could ask because he was on his own; there were no bosses or other assistance booking staff on shift. He was very nervous and made many mistakes (understandably). Talk about being thrown in at the deep end…

After the hour-plus attempting to book the assistance, he had to admit defeat, because he was unable to book the wheelchair space on Virgin Trains East Coast. He said he would get somebody else to sort the booking and email me this morning at 8am. (Unsurprisingly, I haven’t had that email.)

Northern’s Disabled People’s Protection Policy

Northern’s Disabled People’s Protection Policy (which has been approved by the Office of the Rail and Road and which Northern are thus legally obliged to comply with) says:

To book assistance please call our dedicated freephone number (also free to mobiles), 0800 138 5560. Lines are open 24 hours a day, every day that we are running.

We can book assistance for your whole rail journey, even where part of the journey is with other train operators.

That’s plainly not true, because they do not deliver on their promises.

Recurrent problems

Since Arriva took over the franchise, I’ve had the following problems.

  • A weekend of all calls to the line being cut off after the recorded introduction
  • Staff not being able to use Passenger Assist 
  • Staff not knowing how to use text relay
  • Staff booking alternative taxis for inaccessible stations, from firms tens of miles away who don’t know the area
  • Staff telling me to do a 100 mile round trip to get round a closed line, because the rail replacement bus they’d booked was inaccessible.
  • Staff refusing to book assistance unless I had first bought a ticket, making me pay more than I would be charged if I bought the ticket on the day (rail rovers etc.)
  • Staff telling me I would have to pay for the rail replacement taxi because their rail replacement bus was not wheelchair accessible
  • Staff unable to find out whether scheduled services hauled by Tornado had a wheelchair space
  • Staff being unable to book wheelchair spaces on connecting companies’ services
  • Staff telling me I had been banned from booking assistance because I have attempted to book wheelchair spaces on Northern’s services, whereas I have never done that. The staff member had misinterpreted an instruction to flag my assistance bookings for checking by a manager due to the number of erroneous bookings I had experienced.
  • Multiple other incidents.

I have brought this shabby and unacceptable treatment to the attention of senior managers in Northern a number of times, but it hasn’t improved – in fact yesterday’s abortive assistance booking demonstrates it is getting worse.

Impact

We can have no confidence that the booking has been made correctly, so we are left sweating throughout the journey – will the wheelchair space be booked by somebody else and unavailable? Will the person with ramps turn up or will we be unwillingly carried along until the terminus?
Non-disabled people can plan and book their journey in seconds or minutes, with relative confidence they can carry out their journey. Through the common contempt organisations like Northern demonstrate for services for disabled people, we are obliged to expend considerable time, energy and dogged determination to plan, book and carry out the same journey.

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