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This column's revelations on the Class 458 RVAR extension embarrassed DfT Rail and have already captured a hostage to fortune
When I rolled over in bed, turned on the wireless to check the time and heard the Today programme's 06.10 newspaper review featuring the Class 465 display screen saga, I expected a busy day ahead. And sure enough the ‘phone soon rang asking if I would do an interview for the programme. This was great fun, as I provoked the great John Humphries into harrumphing that this was ‘political correctness gone mad'.
Of course this was nothing to do with me and everything to do with reader Ben Webster, the eximious Transport Correspondent of the Times. Ben is rare among the national press correspondents in that he reads the specialist press and confesses to having the last five years of Modern Railways on a shelf for reference.
Other radio and TV programmes picked up the story, as did other papers. This caused huge, and well deserved, embarrassment for DfT Rail who rapidly back-tracked.
A spokesman told me that the Department was in discussions with SWT on the impact of the decision. He added that, although the operator had had seven years in which to rectify the displays ‘we are not in the business of unnecessarily inconveniencing passengers and we're sure a commonsense solution can be reached. If necessary the decision will be reviewed'.
Stagecoach chose not to push on the open door. Naively they think that annoying government might prejudice their bid for the South Western franchise. They told me ‘we probably won't need the Junipers after July anyway'.
Craven? Undoubtedly, Does it matter? No, because the real issue is not the Junipers but the requirement in the Disability Discrimination Act 2005 for all rail vehicles to comply with the Rail Vehicle Accessibility Regulations from 2020.
Thanks to the national media exposure over a fleet of just 120 vehicles, DfT looked over the precipice of what could happen twenty-fold if it is pedantically prescriptive in 13 years time.
If you assume a passenger vehicle has a 35 year life any train built between 1985 and November 1998 when the RVAR came into effect, is potentially caught in the DDA's 2020 trap. And remember that British Rail bought a lot of trains between 1985 and the start of the 1067 day order hiatus in 1993.
Many of these trains are accessible to all sorts of disabilities, but they are not compliant. And making them compliant could cost a lot of money.
How much money? Say £8 million for the Class 323 fleet?
This is why, as reported in this column (archive on line at Alycidon Rail www.alycidon.com ) the Rolling Stock Companies proposed a deadline of 2035. The disability advocacy groups (how's that for political correctness) wanted 2017.
Initially DfT Rail proposed 2025 as a compromise, but then reneged. Hence 2020 and the threat that there would be no exemptions.
Of course the advocacy groups will take an inflexible line. Commenting on the 458 exemption the Parliamentary Officer for the Leonard Cheshire charity, welcomed the DfT's decision, because it had been concerned by ‘the tendency to grant exemptions too lightly'. He added ‘Passengers should blame overcrowding on SWT for not carrying out the work they said they were going to. Three millimetres might sound tiny but the rules are there for a reason. Disabled people face great difficulties in accessing the rail network and the regulations must be adhered to if the situation is to improve'.
And at an excellent conference on disability legislation in May, where I was asked to open the post-lunch debate with something provocative, I got two ego-boosting roastings from the Disability Rights Commission (DRC) over my Class 458 article. But, there was also a serious side to the day.
Talking to John Bengough, DfT Rail's DDA enforcer (actually Rolling Stock Policy & DDA Enforcement Manager ) about the impact of 2020, and backed up by a couple hard nosed ROSCO chums, I was waxing strong about the iniquity of scrapping accessible trains because door buttons or grab handles were a few millimetres outside the RVAR requirement. John heard me out and replied, ‘There will be exemptions after 2020'.
That shut me up. And the boys from the ROSCOs were deep in thought too.
No doubt such exemptions will be hard won, but a ‘menu' approach, similar to that being proposed for refurbishments, could be a starting point. And in the section of my presentation looking ahead to 2020 I suggested the introduction of tolerances on RVAR dimensions.
For example the external door buttons on the Class 458 are 30mm too high. Correcting this would mean re-panelling the bpdyside ans rewiring. Over the whole fleet, this equates to £30,000 per millimetre.
If you said that non critical dimensions had to be within plus or minus 5%, only the big issues, like truly accessible toilets, would remain. Reducing the cost of compliance would focus spending on what really mattered.
As I said in my presentation, this would require the disabled lobby to show some tolerance. This also got the DRC going, but I really was trying to be helpful.