Transport ministers look set to drop two more rail access improvement schemes, only days after admitting they had slashed spending on their main programme by nearly 30 per cent.
Campaigners described the cuts as a “kick in the teeth” for disabled and older rail passengers.
Last week, Disability News Service (DNS) reported that the government had cut the budget for the Access for All programme from £370 million over its first 10 years to just £103 million over the next four.
This will mean a drop from £37 million a year to less than £26 million a year across England, Wales and Scotland, and an average of less than 10 stations improved every year rather than 16 a year over its first 10 years.
But the Department for Transport (DfT) also has two smaller funding schemes, with a £37.5 million programme for mid-size projects, set up three years ago and due to end this year, and about £7 million-a-year funding available to train operators for smaller-scale access improvements, which has been used to improve more than 1,100 stations since 2006.
A DfT spokeswoman confirmed this week that there were “currently no plans to repeat the mid-tier programme”, which was set up using £37.5 million in savings from other programmes.
And she said she was “unable to confirm at this stage” whether the £7 million-a-year small programme – which is given by DfT to train operators based on the number of passengers who use the stations they manage – would be extended beyond 2015, even though Network Rail published its new £38 billion five-year plan last week.
She said: “We are currently discussing with train operators how they plan to spend their allocations for the 2014-15 financial year.”
She added: “It is important to remember that Access for All and our other funding schemes are over and above the access improvements that the industry is required to deliver as a matter of course whenever they carry out infrastructure works at stations.
“In addition, we are looking at how we can continue and build on the work already done under Access for All.”
Only about 450 of more than 2,500 UK railway stations currently have step-free access via lifts or ramps to all of their platforms.
Lianna Etkind, campaigns coordinator for the user-led charity Transport for All (TfA), said: “Cutting funding for rail access is not only a kick in the teeth to disabled and older passengers, it’s also a foolish measure that flies in the face of DfT’s own valuations of the economic benefit of the programme.”
She said that DfT’s figures show a “conservative estimate” of a £2.90 benefit for every £1 invested in Access for All.
She said: “Four out of five rail stations are inaccessible to those of us who can’t do steps, and slashing funding for access risks setting back transport equality yet again.
“We urge the government to invest in rail access schemes and influence the rail industry to play its part in funding access improvements.”
Etkind said that evidence showed clearly that station access improvements such as new lifts and signage benefit all passengers and lead to increased ticket sales.
She added: “It’s high time that the UK followed the example of other European countries and ensured that the rail companies pay their fair share of access improvements.
“Train companies, as well as nearby businesses, see increased revenue when station access is improved – why should they get all of the benefits whilst the taxpayer shoulders all the costs?”
She pointed to London Underground, which has “pioneered clever ways of leveraging third-party funds” for lift developments at Tower Hill tube station (paid for by a property developer through a “section 106″ planning agreement) and at Harrow-on-the-Hill (paid for by selling part of the station carpark for a housing development).
She added: “TfA believe that access improvements need to be written into franchise agreements so that train companies are compelled to invest in a railway that is open to all.”
News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com