The rail industry still has more to do to improve access, despite increasing numbers of disabled people using railcards, according to a leading expert.
The Association of Train Operating Companies (ATOC) this week marked the 30th anniversary of the Disabled Persons Railcard by releasing figures which showed journeys made using the card had trebled in the last 15 years.
Despite the recession, journey numbers have continued to rise in recent years, from about 2.8 million in 2008-09 to 3.2 million in 2009-10 and 3.5 million last year.
There are now 122,000 railcards in use by disabled people, an increase of more than 40,000 in just five years.
The railcard offers passengers and their companions a third off most rail fares across Britain, with the average card-holder saving £80 a year.
ATOC said the continuing rise in the number of journeys made was due to the success of the railcard, and “significant improvements in facilities and services on trains”, and also pointed to Stations Made Easy, an interactive web guide launched in 2009 that shows access facilities and layouts of all Britain’s 2,500 stations.
Ann Bates, a disabled transport access consultant and former chair of the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee’s rail working group, said access had improved but there were still a “huge number of stations that have got no access whatsoever”.
She said one of the key reasons that more disabled people were able to use the rail network was the improvements paid for through the 10-year, £370 million Access for All fund launched by the Labour government in 2006.
Bates sat on the committee that advised the government how to spend the Access for All funds.
She said: “We spent the money very, very carefully. We put lifts in where they were really needed and spent a lot of money on things like automatic doors that help not just wheelchair-users but also elderly people.”
They also ensured the funding was spread geographically, so it was not just spent on the busiest London stations.
But she said the railcard had made a difference, particularly after ATOC relaxed its eligibility criteria.
ATOC now hopes that the new web-based version of its Assisted Passenger Reservation System (APRS), which went live in November 2011, will make travelling easier for disabled passengers.
The previous system relied on faxes being sent to alert station staff that a disabled person would need assistance, with passengers often having to spend up to half-an-hour explaining their access requirements on the booking line every time they wanted to make a rail journey.
Last year, the rail consumer watchdog Passenger Focus found disabled rail passengers were still being left stranded on trains and platforms because of continuing failures with APRS.
But ATOC believes the new web-based system makes booking “quicker and easier”.
Some stations do still receive bookings by fax, but ATOC said that “most are now migrating to email”.
An ATOC spokeswoman said that “ATOC and train companies absolutely recognise that improving facilities for disabled rail passengers is still a ‘work in progress’” but that there have been “significant improvements” in recent years “thanks to millions of pounds invested by the government and industry as a whole”.
She said: “We know that the discounts offered with the railcard are a huge help to holders, but we also know that guaranteed assistance from trained staff is also a major reason for increased travel.”
She added: “Britain has the oldest rail infrastructure in the world, but also has the highest level of investment in improving accessibility, with millions spent every year.”