Below is the text of the speech made by Kevin Hollinrake, the Conservative MP for Thirsk and Malton, in the House of Commons on 26 June 2019.
I am grateful to you for granting this important debate, Mr Speaker, because train travel has never been more popular or important. Around 20,000 miles of railway track criss-cross our island, and altogether, we made 1.8 billion rail journeys last year—a 3% rise on the previous year. I am a frequent rail user, boarding a train every week at York or Thirsk that whisks me to Westminster to represent my constituents, and then boarding another to return home to glorious North Yorkshire in time for my surgeries and visits at the weekend. Importantly, this week the Government legislated for a target of net zero carbon emissions by 2050. Using public transport is one way that we can help to tackle climate change and improve air quality.
Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
This week, most Members across the House took the decision to drive for that net zero carbon outcome for the UK, but that can be achieved only if more people make use of public transport. The fact that those who are disabled are precluded from using many railway stations, such as Thirsk, due to the lack of facilities is absurd. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Government must, in future policy relating to climate change targets, enable all people to travel on public transport, not just those who are able-bodied?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. As I will say later, around 40% of stations do not have access for disabled people, and we know that disabled people are accounting for a greater and greater proportion of our population, so this is hugely important. I am grateful for his intervention.
We need to encourage train use for all users and facilitate access to stations. Trains allow us to commute and explore the length and breadth of our country, from Thurso in the very north of Scotland to St Ives in Cornwall, both of which, I must mention, are replete with step-free access for disabled passengers. This is the essence of the problem: these essentials cannot just be for those who are in the physical prime of their life. Trains and the 2,500 stations that they pass through should be made more accessible for everyone. Everyone, including disabled people, the elderly and parents pushing prams, should have the same opportunity to travel by train.
In particular, Thirsk railway station in my constituency is in need of accessibility improvements, which will make a real difference to people’s lives. As with most stations, trains travel through Thirsk extremely quickly—I have stood on the platform when trains come through at over 100 miles an hour—but Thirsk is unique in that it has an island ticket office and platforms stationed between the tracks. Concrete steps are the only way to access the ticket office and platforms. Passengers must reach the ticket office and both platforms by navigating a barrow crossing across the high-speed railway line. This can be a very difficult and even traumatic experience for the elderly, disabled passengers, parents with pushchairs or people heaving heavy suitcases. Thirsk is not alone: 40% of railway stations in England, Scotland and Wales do not have step-free access, and research found that over a third of working-age disabled people had experienced problems using trains in the last year as a result of their disability. A solution is much needed.
The railway industry is on the right track: it is encouraging more people to travel by train using the disabled persons railcard; carriages have been adapted; and I regularly see ramps on platforms, and kindly staff going above and beyond to facilitate access for passengers. Information is also improving and becoming more widely available to disabled users. National Rail has published an access map online, which is a great resource for disabled passengers, but it also highlights the limited access they have to railway stations in my constituency. I quote the entry for Thirsk station:
“customers should note that access to all platforms is via a barrow crossing which is reliant upon staff assistance, and cannot be accessed outside of staffed hours.”
Fortunately, we are starting from a good place in this debate, as improving access to our railway stations for disabled passengers is very much a key priority for the Government. As for further down the line, Network Rail is working towards an entirely accessible transport network by 2030, in which there will be assistance if physical infrastructure remains a barrier. That timetable will remind those of us who remember train travel before privatisation of the British Rail slogan, which is apt: “We’re getting there”.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Transport Secretary and the Minister, whom I met to discuss these issues and our bid to the Access for All funding programme. Access for All is providing £300 million of additional funding to make 73 stations more accessible by 2024. Unfortunately, Thirsk is not one of them. I felt that our campaign was good, and was building up a head of steam. It had strong support from Graham Meiklejohn at TransPennine Express, Grand Central, Graham North for North Yorkshire County Council, Professor Abrahams of the Northallerton and Thirsk Rail Users Group, members of the public, and of course me. I am grateful to all those people, with whom I work very closely on this issue.
Our bid was unsuccessful. Apparently, we fell short on footfall. However, the number of users on these routes continues to increase. There was a 3.6% increase this year, and the population of Hambleton is expected to grow by 4% by 2035, which of course will mean more disabled and elderly people there. I am disappointed that our bid was unsuccessful, but to be fair, I am not sure that we adequately highlighted the fact that there is no unaided access to any platform at Thirsk station. We need to revisit our bid, make it more compelling, and point out the growing issues at the station. According to the Rail Delivery Group, in 2018, there were 6,700 people using a disabled person’s railcard in my constituency. That is up from 4,200 in 2015—an increase of 59%. It is great that more people are saving money on their journeys, but what is the point of encouraging the use of that railcard if its users are deterred from using the train, or simply cannot access the platform?
According to the Office for National Statistics, nearly one in five people in England and Wales have some form of disability. Leonard Cheshire estimates that almost 45,000 journeys are made by disabled people at Thirsk station each year. The Equality Act 2010, which I know the Minister is very familiar with, urges the Secretary of State to make regulations to allow disabled persons to travel without unreasonable difficulty in safety and reasonable comfort. I call on the Minister, the Secretary of State and the Department for Transport to ensure that that can happen at Thirsk railway station.
I appreciate that funds are always in short supply; there is no magic money tree. Elected representatives, including my colleagues in the Department, must always consider those footing the bill—the taxpayer—and, of course, value for money. I am keen to work with the Department, TransPennine Express, local authorities and local enterprise partnerships to find a solution. I am very flexible in my approach to ensuring better access to the station. Rather than putting in two lifts, one on either side of the bridge, there is perhaps a business case for putting in a lift on one side of it, and for moving the ticket office on the platform to the other side. That would be a cheaper option. It would save us perhaps around £1 million in our bid. It will be interesting to see what further funding might be made available to facilitate that solution.
As I say, there are alternative cost-effective solutions. I would be keen to hear more from the Department about what can be done. I invite the Minister to Thirsk—it is always a pleasure for anyone to visit Thirsk—to meet the groups I mentioned and help develop a plan. Facilitating access is something we can all get on board with. I look forward to working with Ministers to develop a plan to improve disabled access at Thirsk station and, over time, to see better access to public transport for all.