Access for All?
Suggesting that people with restricted mobility should be denied access to parts of the transport network would plainly be absurd. Yet, through history rather than design, that is the reality.
There are over 2,500 passenger stations in the UK, according to the Office of Rail and Road (ORR). Within these stations, there are profit-making outlets – from coffee shops to vape shops to bookstores and a steady stream of commuters and other users passing through.
These commuters all have different needs. The space and facilities provided should be easily available and accessible to all who want to use them, in the way they need to use it.
An accessible station, according to Network Rail’s Inclusive Design Strategy, “allows disabled passengers, and people with luggage or buggies, to spend more leisure time in the shops or restaurants before boarding their train.” Back in 2014, roughly 450 stations had step-free access via lifts or ramps. However, this access may not have been suitable for some people who are older or older and disabled.
Access for All, should mean ALL! The question is whether the needs of an ageing population are factored into the design and build element of station enhancements and network upgrades, and are they budgeted for?
The challenges with Access for All arise from having to modify existing stations and platforms that were not designed with people with reduced mobility in mind. Stations are naturally often located in busy and densely populated areas; so improvements have to be contained within the existing ‘footprint’. And, of course, stations have to keep working while improvements are made.
It’s a design and planning challenge as much as a construction one. But solutions can be found as with the AfA project at Hassocks Station in West Sussex. Here, lifts were installed to connect to an existing underpass because the normal overbridge and elevator solution was not feasible.
The constraints will also make it essential to use innovations such as offsite manufacture to execute projects to tight timescales while minimising disruption. This was used extensively on three station upgrades that were completed in a 12 month timeframe at Alton, Aldershot and Wokingham stations.
Network Rail’s inclusive design strategy states that, ‘by 2020, more than 50% of the UK’s population will be over 50 years old. They say that: ‘this will bring an increased level of disability so future-proofing infrastructure is crucial.’
The physical infrastructure is one part of the challenge. The use of technology is essential and expected by commuters. Technology will also help everyone access and use the network fully. People are constantly on the move and demand WiFi and mobile apps, as well as audio information to keep them mobile and updated. People need to take in information quickly, and while they are on the move. They don’t have much time to read information, and if you’re partially sighted, you probably don’t have the option. Visual and audio media and messaging are easier for most people to handle while on the move than written information.
According to the CrossRail website their new train fleet will be built to the latest standards of accessibility. ‘Crossrail trains will have dedicated, clearly distinguished priority seats and space for wheelchairs. Each carriage will provide both visual and audio information about the train’s journey. Crossrail will be fully operational by the end of this year.
The goal should be to extend this degree of accessibility across as much of the network as possible. Otherwise train operators will find an increasing percentage of the population excluded from using their services.
We believe that with determination, technology and innovation Access for All can become a reality.