- This analysis was published in RAIL 896 (January 15-28 2020).
On December 19 2019 - just days before new compliancy regulations came into effect - the Government stirred the pot over the accessibility issue that has been simmering away for more than half a decade.
In a letter to Rail Delivery Group Chief Executive Paul Plummer, Transport Minister Chris Heaton-Harris wrote: “It is extremely disappointing that the rail industry and train operators will fail to meet the deadline to provide accessible trains for every passenger and every journey by the end of the year.
“Owners and operators have had ten years to prepare for the December 31 2019 deadline. It is deeply frustrating that disabled passengers will still be waiting into 2020 to see accessibility improvements to some services.”
Unsurprisingly, the Department for Transport was absolved of blame. Heaton-Harris added: “The Government is absolutely committed to ensuring that all passengers can travel by rail with ease and confidence,” although he didn’t mention how the DfT had continued to order new trains without level floor access.
Heaton-Harris also wrote: “I do acknowledge the efforts the industry has made so far to achieve compliance, for example through investment in new trains and carriages.” He even acknowledged the delays in the new fleets as a reason for the need for dispensation.
The Minister was right to point out that the industry has had a decade in which to sort this issue. But there have been many bumps along the way, some of them in areas where the DfT cannot plead innocence - even as late as September 2019 it was still insisting all would be OK.
Transport Minister Nusrat Ghani, in a Commons Written Reply on September 4, had said: “There is not expected to be any change to reliability of services due to improvements to accessibility of trains. Indeed, the modern trains which are transforming journeys for all passengers on our network today are fully accessible and reliable.”
It was back in 2011 when Porterbrook announced a contract to refurbish nine two-car Class 156s for Greater Anglia, and that these would be the first to be fitted with fully accessible interiors.
However, even then the rolling stock company was expressing its concern that more trains could not be refurbished to this standard, owing to the nature of the franchise. Specifically, this was in relation to East Midlands Trains Class 156s, which are only now being made compliant.
Heaton-Harris said in his letter that the rolling stock owners have had ten years to prepare for the deadline. But he neglected to mention that the owners did, in fact, put forward ideas.
In another example, in 2012 Angel Trains began work on a £7 million scheme (in partnership with Bombardier) that involved the refurbishment of a Class 317/7 electric multiple unit (EMU).
The ‘317’ was unveiled the following year, where it was stated: “The complete interior redesign on two vehicles has increased the overall capacity, and ensured PRM-TSI (Persons of Reduced Mobility - Technical Specification for Interoperability) compliance, with significant engineering work on the doors to make maintenance work easier.”
But today, with the December 31 deadline having passed, 317722 is now stored at Potters Group in Ely, having been out of traffic for more than three years. No orders were placed - instead, the DfT’s head was turned by Abellio’s bid for the Greater Anglia franchise that involved 111 new Bombardier Aventra EMUs operating on routes such as those that employed the ‘317s’.
The Aventra was unproven when DfT awarded the franchise in August 2016 (RAIL 807). And despite GA showing the first one off to the press in September 2018, no Class 720 had been released from Derby by the end of 2019 for testing on the main line.
In the meantime, GA needs dispensation for the ‘317s’, with 27 to receive accessibility modifications as per the franchise agreement. The franchise document states that all but a handful should have been withdrawn by now, and that the first ‘720s’ should have been in traffic from March 2019.
Further north, in 2014 Porterbrook spent £800,000 on refurbishing a Class 144 Pacer to meet PRM - TSI compliance.
Managing Director of Porterbrook at the time was Paul Francis. On October 27 2014, he told the House of Commons Transport Select Committee: “We are going to put £800,000 into a Pacer vehicle. Notwithstanding everybody’s dissatisfaction, we want to show stakeholders - whether they are people from Northern, people from DfT or politicians, whoever wants to come and see it - what you can genuinely do with that Pacer vehicle to modify it.
“That will form the backstop if the surplus of diesel rolling stock does not materialise and you have to continue to operate Pacer vehicles. We have taken that decision quite independently. We have just decided to invest that money.”
The two-car set was unveiled at Derby on June 26 2015. That same year the new Northern franchise was awarded and a £500m deal for new trains was placed with CAF, with the promise that the Class 14x trains would be removed from traffic by the end of the decade.
Local politicians such as Mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham and Sheffield Metro Mayor Dan Jarvis have been critical of these trains, using them as a stick with which to beat Northern.
And delays caused by infrastructure problems and issues with the CAF trains meant that in June last year, Northern was forced to admit that Class 144s would remain in traffic into 2020. However, apart from 144012, none meet accessibility deadlines.
Then, later in the year, it was confirmed that ‘142s’ would also remain - again not meeting compliance regulations, although these are to be paired with trains that are compliant.
Nevertheless, the deadline was missed, despite a solution having been proposed that could have reduced the level of outrage.
The issue of accessibility really came to the fore in 2017, when then-Secretary of State for Transport Chris Grayling announced the cancellation of electrification north of Kettering on the Midland Main Line, and that a fleet of bi-mode units would enter traffic from 2022.
No mention was made of the existing fleet of High Speed Trains that were not compliant. Owned by Porterbrook, these had long been planned for the scrapyard.
On a visit to Neville Hill depot in December 2014, RAIL was told of the EMT HST fleet: “Porterbrook won’t do PRM-TSI work on them. This means that they will be out of use on December 31 2019. They won’t be getting the £250,000 door modifications needed.” Government remained quiet on this issue.
In March 2018, Porterbrook told RAIL it would cost £50m to modify the HSTs in time to meet the accessibility deadline (RAIL 850). Speaking to RAIL at the time, a Porterbrook spokesman said: “Allowing for supply chain capacity, this might be achieved by late 2021/early 2022.”
The DfT told RAIL on March 14 2018: “We take the issue of accessibility on our railways extremely seriously. It is vital that all passengers have the same opportunities to travel, and we will continue to push train companies on this matter.
“All owners and operators of trains on the national network know that they must meet modern accessibility standards by the end of 2019, and we are working with East Midlands Trains to look at a range of possible options for meeting these requirements on the route before the bi-modes are introduced.”
RAIL understands that at the same time, work was carried out in relation to Class 43s working with compliant Mk 4s. Nothing came of the plan.
The answer arrived a year later, when DfT ordered EMT to undertake a procurement process on its behalf, regarding modifying HSTs. But Stagecoach, which ran the franchise, was then excluded from bidding only a few weeks later.
The request was revealed in a letter (dated March 14 2019) from then-EMT Managing Director Jake Kelly to Lilian Greenwood MP. Kelly also wrote that as part of the tender process, EMT had included an option to install sewage tanks (controlled emission toilets). But the work did not include the sliding doors because “these are not a specific requirement of PRM”. He said EMT expected to receive bids for the tender soon.
When (shortly after) Abellio was announced as the winner of the East Midlands franchise, DfT revealed that one option was for redundant LNER HSTs to transfer to the Midland Main Line. This was confirmed later in 2019, when it was announced that nine sets would transfer and operate for a year. These are more compliant than the existing EMR fleet, but only because they have two fully accessible toilets and passenger information screens. The solution beyond December 31 2020, when their lease expires, has not been revealed.
North of the border, when Abellio was announced as the winner of the ScotRail franchise in 2014, it was confirmed that former Great Western Railway High Speed Trains would be cascaded north.
Fitted with sliding doors and controlled-emission toilets, 26 would be in traffic by the end of 2019. Considering the first sets were sent off-lease by GWR in September 2017, that gave plenty of time (or so it was thought) to prepare the HSTs.
But more than two years later, only ten sets have been released to traffic, with ScotRail forced to use ‘Classic’ sets. In late 2018, SR Managing Director Alex Hynes told the Scottish Parliament that consideration had been given to cancelling the project, but that didn’t happen.
Wabtec Rail is carrying out the work at Doncaster, but this is something that had not been attempted previously. Carriage ends were removed, and invasive modifications were required.
Each Mk 3 coach was hand-built so therefore slightly different from the next. The condition of the stock was also varied, ranging from excellent to poor.
Wabtec was also hit by staff retention issues - Hitachi, located at nearby Doncaster Carr, was able to offer long-term employment thanks to its 27½-year maintenance contract as a result of the Intercity Express Programme deal. That meant trained staff were lost from Doncaster Works.
On top of all that, Wabtec was also modifying 44 Mk 3s for GWR and more than 40 for CrossCountry. Both of these projects are also running late.
Yet there was no other company that could seemingly do the work. The supply chain had appeared to fail the industry.
Most of the modification work is carried out during scheduled C6 overhauls, which take place every six to eight years.
Back in 2013, it was Railcare leading the work regarding contract wins, but Railcare no longer exists having fallen into financial difficulty. Its Commercial Director Jamie Borgeat had told RAIL that these deadlines were being hampered by the uncertainty surrounding franchises, with extensions causing train refurbishments to be placed on hold.
“There is money waiting to be spent. When a TOC goes to be refranchised, spending on our work is tiny but part of a huge bid. But then, with required work, refurbishment suddenly becomes a huge spend. We go from fairly negligible to something that is vital, and which will play a big part in the industry,” he said.
Borgeat added that work has already been pushed back because of the franchising difficulties.
Even back then, one source told RAIL that there was a belief that the January 1 2020 deadline could be moved, much like the original ruling stating that Mk 1s had to be removed from the national network by a certain date. They were proved right.