Disability rights campaigners have criticised the postponement of plans to increase the number of step-free stations on the London Underground. The BBC reports that at least three projects have been put on hold, after Transport for London (TfL) said that it was experiencing a serious funding shortfall.
Currently, only about one third of all Tube stations, and about half of all overground stations, have step-free access, meaning that there are lifts, ramps, or level surfaces installed so that customers can avoid using stairs or escalators to access the platform. They can also avoid the gap between the train and the platform edge.
This means that wheelchair users and those with limited mobility have to plan their journeys very carefully, to avoid routes where there is no step-free access in place. A recent survey by TfL found that two-thirds of respondents would make more journeys if access was improved.
All 41 stations on the new Elizabeth Line which opened in the spring are step-free, as are a further 91 stations across the London Underground network. There were plans to adapt at least three further stations, including Hanger Lane, Burnt Oak, and Northolt. However, these were put on hold during the pandemic, and have not been restarted.
The Disability News Service reports that at least 300 suspensions of step-free access have occurred since the pandemic, due to lack of staff and faulty lifts. TfL commented that they were experiencing recruitment problems, and ongoing staff sickness issues caused by the pandemic.
A spokesman commented: “We place a priority on keeping step-free stations open as much as we can, but when we do not have the staffing numbers to safely do so, for example in the event of an emergency lift evacuation or for the deployment of a manual boarding ramp, we have to close the station or suspend step-free access to ensure safe operations.”
Katie Pennick, campaigns and communications manager for Transport for All, the disabled-led 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).”
“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.”
The DfT has already received over £6bn of funding over the past few years to help it maintain London’s complex transport networks. However, the loss of revenue during the pandemic lockdown periods has hit finances hard, and the body is still striving to balance the budget.
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