When the government announced plans to close ticket offices at train stations across the country, it felt like another kick in the teeth for disabled people. Not content with the lack of level boarding at stations in the UK, the poor attitudes to disabled passengers which often leave them stranded and the extortionate pricing which renders us all baffled, ticket office closures would see safety compromised for disabled people travelling by rail even more. That is, until the government took a surprise U-turn thanks to disability activists and organisations.
“The news has made me incredibly happy and it’s reduced my anxiety around travelling on trains. I hope the decision leads to improving the experience of disabled passengers when travelling,” said disability activist, writer and performer Leanna Benjamin.
Plans to close ticket offices were first leaked to the press in early 2022. Since then, campaigners, organisations, unions and disabled people’s organisations (DPOs) such as Scope, WheelPower and Mencap have fought to get the government to change its mind. While it was initially claimed that closing ticket offices would improve accessibility, no such proof was ever provided, and the fight went on.
Ticket office closures would impact everyone. What happens when electronic ticket machines go down, as they so often do? Or when your card just won’t work? Or when an entitled man feels he can climb over live tracks to harass a woman, as we saw in a viral video last month? As a disabled woman, that incident especially terrified me, as I wouldn’t have been able to run away from danger. When faced with the prospect of unmanned ticket offices, it was a survival instinct that drove so many disabled people to campaign for change.
“When accessibility barriers do come up, such as screens going down, deaf people like myself have to rely on announcements which are difficult to hear,” says Samantha Baines, a comedian and actor who regularly travels by train to work events. “Ticket machines can’t give me the information I need. Having disability-trained staff at stations is so critical to the deaf and disabled community.”
It’s no surprise that the catalyst for closures was to save money. Closures were initially suggested by rail operators in response to the government’s demand that they make the numbers add up at a time when they continue to haemorrhage money in the wake of changing post-pandemic travel habits. Some 750,000 responses to the consultation and the proposed changes made it the biggest consultation response in British history.
Alongside the RMT, headed up by Mick Lynch, many disability charities took the lead on campaigning. Transport For All, an indomitable force for good in the disability space, jumped into action and created a series of easy ways for individuals to voice their thoughts against closures to parliament, something which ultimately led to the astonishing U-turn.
Katie Pennick, campaigns manager at Transport for All, says: “While we are proud of the incredible tenacity of disabled people and our community for securing this major campaign victory, the outcome is bittersweet. The disastrous and discriminatory proposals should never have been put forward.
“It took multiple legal challenges, public uproar, cross-party opposition, and ultimately a watchdog decision for the Department for Transport to finally withdraw its support for the closures. Though the government was eventually swayed, it is appalling that disabled people’s concerns were dismissed for so long.”
Speaking about the victory, Lib Dem MP Tim Farron echoed Pennick’s thoughts: “For too long, the needs of disabled people have been an afterthought when it comes to public transport.
“Too many train stations are completely inaccessible for people with mobility issues and that must change. It’s why I put down an amendment to the government’s Levelling Up [and Regeneration] Bill last year that would have placed a new duty on the transport secretary to ensure that railway stations meet national accessibility standards. Sadly, this was voted down by Conservative MPs.”
While the lack of ticket office closures may feel incredible this week, next week disabled activists and their allies will be right back to picking up other campaigns for their right to travel. Sadly, it’s relentless.
“[The U-turn] represents the best possible outcome – but it’s not a step forward. Instead, we have resisted things getting worse,” adds Pennick.
There remain multiple issues to tackle in this sphere. For example, while campaigning for level boarding has seen success in some parts of the country, many smaller and more rural areas are still struggling with a lack of access. In my local town of Stowmarket in Suffolk, I have to personally find convoluted ways to access the train station as there’s no step-free access; times this by hundreds of stations across the country and you’ve got thousands of disabled people facing stress and isolation on a daily basis.
Despite grand plans for the 2012 London Paralympics and Olympics, even London is struggling with accessible stations: currently, only a third of London Underground stations are accessible to those with mobility needs. While the manned ticket offices are a step forward, the accessibility fight goes on.
And transport access is just one issue disabled people campaign for. There are hundreds of others, including access to benefits and DWP reforms, longer-than-ever NHS waiting lists, and thorough representation within media. Being disabled is exhausting – there’s no two ways about it – and we’re relying on our allies now more than ever.
But, while it can be easy to get swept up in the huge amount of work still to do, it’s important to acknowledge the successful campaigning which resulted in the latest U-turn and take stock of the incredible disability community in the UK.
As a result of the hard work done by every participant, disabled people are ultimately going to feel safer at stations across the country, and hopefully have a more seamless experience as a result.
Next time I travel, saying “hello” to the ticket office staff in solidarity, I’ll be reminded that these big campaigns really can result in meaningful change – the effort is worth it. But I can’t pretend I won’t also be peering over my shoulder, wondering what’s coming down the track next from a government which sometimes seems hell-bent on ensuring life gets progressively more difficult for disabled travellers.
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