Disability rights groups have raised concerns about the levels of lift closures on the London Underground, which remove step free access for wheelchair users, and people with limited mobility. The Disability News Service (DNS) reports that a lack of staff has made lift closure increasingly frequent over the past few years. 

Figures released by Transport for London (TfL) show that in 2018-19, there were just 20 suspensions of step-free access caused by staff shortages, compared with 490 last year. While a sharp rise during the Covid pandemic is understandable, the figures are showing no sign of returning to pre-pandemic levels.

This has serious implications for the freedom of disabled people, and their right to use public transport. For some, being able to access public transport means that they can continue to live independently, attend medical appointments, visit friends, and take part in work or training opportunities. 

However, unfortunately, disabled people frequently encounter barriers, unhelpful attitudes, and even hate crime when they use public transport. Most wheelchair users need staff to help them with boarding ramps, lift access, and toilet access (disabled toilets are often kept locked at stations, and lifts are frequently out of order.)

Katie Pennick, campaigns and communications manager for Transport for All, the organisation that campaigns on accessible transport, said: “It is wholly unacceptable that step-free access is being suspended at stations due to a lack of staffing, and we are really concerned to see the upward trend in instances where this is happening.”

She added: “Step-free access across the London Underground is already insufficient, with only 91 out of the 272 tube stations having some degree of step-free access (and no current plans for further stations to become step free).”

Further concerns have been raised about new government plans to close the majority of train station ticketing offices, in a bid to reduce costs. This would reduce the number of transport staff on hand to assist disabled travellers by four-fifths, the DNS claims. The publication calls the issue ‘an escalating human rights crisis.’

Rail companies already regularly breach accessibility laws, often without impunity, the DNS claim. There is a movement towards driver-only trains, for example, which make it difficult for disabled people to reive the assistance they need boarding, finding a seat, or disembarking from the train.

Ms Pennick commented: “There is a worrying push towards so-called modernisation, including reported plans to close ticket offices and reduce staff at mainline rail stations across the UK, as well as a clause in Transport for London’s funding deal committing them to pursue driverless trains.”

In response, TfL said: “We have unfortunately seen some recent station and lift closures in part due [to] staffing challenges with managing existing vacancies, coupled with ongoing higher absence levels as a result of the pandemic, as well as increased annual leave during the summer holiday period.”

The Department for Transport declined to make any further comment about the future of ticket offices.

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