INTRO: With the European Commission considering a Directive on improving access to rail services for passengers with reduced mobility, the British government has introduced new regulations for rolling stock. R W Armitage reports on the implications for operators and the response from the supply sector

In recent years the European Commission has repeatedly stressed its commitment to publishing a Directive on improving access to rail services for passengers with reduced mobility. The White Paper outlining a new strategy for the rail sector published on July 30 1996 specifically refers to establishing standards for accessible railways throughout the European Community, and also to redeploying staff to help disabled and elderly passengers.

The Europe-wide COST 335 research programme into heavy rail accessibility for people with reduced mobility (RG 6.98 p387) is now scheduled to report in October 1999, but an indication of the tone of the final report is already emerging. Danae Penn, the official at the European Commission’s Transport Directorate (DGVII) responsible for initiatives to improve access to transport for disabled people says: ’we prefer those boarding devices which are installed on the train. Platform-based wheelchair lifts have a number of disadvantages for the wheelchair user and the railway company. The optimal solution is level access, and this is already attainable in closed-system rail networks such as Heathrow Express and the Oslo Airport Railway.’

British regulations

One COST participant, the British government, has taken a step towards improving accessibility with the introduction of the Rail Vehicle Accessibility Regulations which came into force on November 1 1998. The regulations contain detailed measures for making rail travel practical for disabled people, and apply to all new rolling stock introduced after December 31 1998. Covering all aspects of rolling stock design, the regulations seek to address issues such as passenger information, where public address systems for audible and visual announcements must be fitted inside the passenger saloon, and visual displays provided on the exterior.

Where toilets are fitted, at least one per trainset must be fully accessible, and at least 10% of seats or eight seats (whichever is less) in any one vehicle must be designated ’priority seats for the use of disabled persons’. The number of wheelchair spaces to be provided varies according to the length of the trainset. No fewer than two spaces are required in a formation with between two and seven vehicles, rising to three spaces for an eight to 11-car train and four spaces for a trainset with 12 vehicles and above. Each wheelchair space must be not less than 1300mm long and 750mm wide.

As regards boarding devices, the regulations stipulate that a ramp or lift must be fitted at each wheelchair-compatible doorway, and there must be at least one such doorway on each side of a vehicle with wheelchair accommodation. The lift or ramp must be available for deployment at a station should a disabled person wish to use it. Any steps within the vehicle must not be more than 200mm high or 300mm deep, and not less than 455mm wide. The regulations also include specifications for lettering on information displays, doorways, door handles and handrails, similar to those introduced for buses in Britain with bright colours to assist the visually-impaired. Signs using the reference wheelchair symbol are to be used to designate wheelchair spaces, priority seats and accessible toilet compartments.

There may be circumstances where a train operator wishes to secure an exemption for certain trains, and this has been provided for in the Rail Vehicle (Exemption Applications) Regulations. Where an exemption is requested, the operator must take into account the effects of non-compliance on disabled users, and balance these effects against the technical, operational or economic reasons why an exemption is being sought.

Station strategy

British infrastructure owner Railtrack has appointed Alice Maynard Lupton as its first Disability Strategy Manager. She has drafted a Disability Strategy for improving accessibility at stations, and this has gone out to consultation with comments due back by January 31 1999. The strategy covers all station facilities, including ticket offices, waiting rooms and toilets.

Whilst it makes a strong economic case for access, the document suggests that ’competitors’ such as buses and taxis will get there first: ’Alternative forms of travel will be accessible before rail is, and the revenue that disabled passengers and their families represent may be lost to the rail industry’ the strategy says. However, advances in other modes will enable a fully-accessible transport chain to be established, and may encourage more rail use by disabled people.

Railtrack considers itself to be potentially at a disadvantage in respect of the cost of accessibility improvements, as the company ’does not necessarily benefit from increased passenger revenue where access is improved’. But, it could get direct financial benefit if it can strike a deal with the train operator to share any resulting increase in revenue.

The order in which work should be done is presenting Railtrack with a difficult balancing act. For the purpose of defining priorities, stations have been divided into categories according to size, level of staffing and other criteria. Major stations are to receive priority since these can act as hubs or distribution centres for large areas. Ticket offices are as important as station and platform entrances, as a disabled person must be able to reach the ticket outlet as easily as the train. The document debates whether work should be done on ’all stations along specific routes’, which may apply on suburban services, or by the number of users with a certain class of impairment, or according to the availability of other forms of accessible transport.

For the EC, Danae Penn is clear about the benefits of investing in accessible rail: ’the important thing to bear in mind always is that people with reduced mobility form at least 30% of the population because they include people with luggage, pushchairs or heavy shopping bags.’ Penn points out that making any form of transport wheelchair-accessible by means of level access makes it accessible for at least 30% of the population, many of whom do not have the use of a car. ’Accessible rail transport is a market opportunity, both for railways and for the rail industry’ Penn concludes.

Britain’s Department of the Environment, Transport & the Regions carried out a cost-benefit analysis as part of the consultation process prior to the introduction of new regulations in 1998. This estimated from demographic trends that the number of elderly people would rise by more than 40% over the next 40 years, so that there would be an increase in passengers with mobility problems as a result of age. Accessible transport would thus become more important, and any costs of meeting new access requirements would be met by increased revenue from passengers who had previously been unable to use trains.

DETR considered three cost compliance scenarios, containing four different cost elements: design and construction, operating costs, revenue, and monitoring and enforcement. The central case, with no revenue effect assumption, suggested that in net present cost terms, the financial impact of introducing compliant rail vehicles in place of standard designs would be only around 2·5%.

In the DETR central case, compliance costs for passenger train operators at 1·5% of vehicle replacement costs plus an element for inspection and enforcement total £181m over 1999-2032.

Suppliers respond

A number of products are now emerging which can help rail companies improve accessibility for the mobility-impaired. Some were on display at the Infrarail 98 exhibition held in Manchester between September 29 and October 1 last year.

Whiteley Electronics were demonstrating their Passenger Emergency Alarm & Communication Unit, which has been supplied for Chiltern Railways’ Class 168 DMUs and specified for other new builds for British operators. Featuring a button rather than a handle to pull, the alarm ’may be operated by persons with disability of the hands’ says the company. Whiteley have also supplied visual display equipment for the Class 168s, with an LED matrix allowing lettering in a wide variety of point sizes to be created. The display is designed to be sunlight legible, and the company states that all of its products are compliant with the Rail Vehicle Accessibility Regulations.

IFE has produced an access ramp for passengers using wheelchairs. An advantage of this ramp is that it can be adjusted to different heights of platform.

Vultron International has recently equipped Edinburgh Waverley station with a digital departure indicator with bright, clear lettering. Clear visibility of visual displays on trains and at stations is important for passengers with visual or hearing impairments.

Vultron also showed a new Talking Sign unit which uses digital audio technology to translate visual passenger information at stations into speech. The Talking Sign receives data communications from the host system in exactly the same way as an electronic sign, and converts it into speech using true text-to-speech conversion software. The passenger can then activate the sign using a push button, a contactless sensor or smartcard, or an infrared device. Alternatively, the sign can be instructed to speak its new message immediately on receipt.

It was clear that GPS-based position-finding systems will also soon be available at a more commercial price, which could be used to trigger announcements inside the train. This could be one way for train operators to meet the requirements of the new British regulations, as it would enable them to automate announcements even on routes where not every train stops at the same set of stations.

CAPTION: Among wheelchair equipment developed recently is the INV-300 Compact electro-hydraulic lift installed on some Regio-Shuttle diesel railcars in Germany. Supplier is U-Lift AB of Sweden

CAPTION: Wide corridor with wheelchair access to the toilet on a double-deck TAF trainset for Italian State Railways