Activists could be set for new direct action protests – this time targeting the railway system – over fears that staff cuts could increase the risk of disabled passengers being verbally and physically abused.
The warning came as a new survey revealed that more than one in four disabled people have been the victims of abuse or disability hate crime at railway stations or on trains.
Disabled activists joined with rail unions this week to highlight the figures and underline fears that cuts to train and station staff over the next six years could put the safety of disabled passengers at risk.
The survey of more than 1,000 disabled people also found that more than two in five wheelchair-users (43 per cent) and partially-sighted passengers (41 per cent) had already been targeted.
Four-fifths of those surveyed (81 per cent) said they believed that – if there were no longer any staff available at stations – it would make travelling more difficult for them, while a third said such cuts would deter them from using the rail system.
Campaigners, including members of Transport for All and Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) and union activists, met MPs to raise their concerns this week, and then travelled to King’s Cross station in London to protest against the cuts.
Paula Peters, one of the protesters outside King’s Cross, was targeted on a train less than a month ago by another passenger, who threatened her and called her a “fucking scrounger”.
She said that if there had not been a member of staff there to help her, she could have been seriously hurt.
Angela Smith, a wheelchair-user, told the protest how she had travelled to London Bridge station four weeks ago, a journey she makes regularly without any problems.
But this time the lift was out of order and she had to ask a fellow passenger to alert a member of staff that she needed help to find an alternative route out of the station.
She said: “When there are no staff around, we are in danger. It is like apartheid in South Africa. Disabled people cannot travel where we want.”
Andy Greene, a member of DPAC’s steering group, told the protest: “We are going to keep demanding and targeting the people who are making these decisions.
“We will hound you and we will harass you and we will make sure you are reminded of the impact of these decisions at every turn you make and every time you turn up in public.”
He told Disability News Service that the idea of direction action protests aimed at the railway system was “certainly something we are going to revisit over the next few months”.
Sean McGovern, chair of the TUC disabled workers’ committee, said there was no point having accessible stations if a disabled person could not use the trains.
He said: “I can go to the station, do my shopping, have a three-course meal, go to the loo, but I still can’t get on the train. There is no point in having one part useable when the other part isn’t.”
He added: “It is going to make life a lot more difficult for a lot more disabled people who at the moment can cope but will probably go back into social isolation if they cannot travel.”
The survey was commissioned by Action for Rail, a campaign run by the TUC and the unions ASLEF, RMT, TSSA and Unite, which is fighting cuts to rail services and staff.
The campaign says the Department for Transport (DfT) has given train companies until 2019 to reduce staffing costs by £200 million and close ticket offices at 650 stations, following Sir Roy McNulty’s Rail Value for Money report, although DfT declined to confirm or deny these figures.
The McNulty report makes a number of recommendations on staffing, including moving to driver-only trains, changes to ticket office opening hours and staffing, and a “review” of station staff.
Action for Rail fears the government’s call for train companies to implement the report’s recommendations could put as many as 20,000 jobs at risk, with 7,000 guards, 5,000 station staff, 2,000 ticket office personnel and 6,000 maintenance and signalling employees potentially losing their jobs by 2019.
The unions fear that three-quarters (73 per cent) of the UK’s stations could become unstaffed by the end of the decade, with all trains losing their guards.
The Association of Train Operating Companies (ATOC) refused to comment on the unions’ estimates of redundancies.
But David Sindall, ATOC’s head of disability and inclusion, said in a statement: “Record numbers of people with disabilities are travelling by train and facilities for disabled passengers are better now than they’ve ever been.
“The independent rail watchdog recently found that 85 per cent of people with a disability were satisfied with their journey.”
DfT also refused to confirm or deny the unions’ figures, because it said it was “unaware of the methodology and assumptions that have been used”.
But a DfT spokesman said: “Staffing of the railways is a matter for industry, as a financially sustainable industry means a growing industry with the scope for more, not fewer, jobs.”
He said the government and the rail industry had introduced initiatives to improve security, including an accreditation scheme for stations that have introduced security measures such as staff training, help points, CCTV, lighting and information.
The DfT spokesman said: “We recognise the importance of passenger security, and train operators are required to have a disabled people’s protection policy as part of their operating licence.
“This sets out the level of services and facilities that disabled passengers can expect, how to get staff assistance and how to get help if things do go wrong.”