disabled access, UK railways
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Hilary Stephenson, Managing Director of Sigma explains what can be done to power UK railways forward when it comes to the issue of disabled access

The UK is highly dependent on its railway network. Whether for commuting or leisure purposes, five million passengers make train journeys every day. Having equal access to this network is a basic right, so it is crucial that everyone, regardless of individual requirements, can easily use it.

However, currently, disabled travellers cannot access 40% of UK train stations. This is primarily due to non-inclusive interior design and insufficient provision of assistance from members of staff.

Despite recent efforts to address this situation – for example, Network Rail’s new accessibility app and the launch of ‘TOC’, an initiative to enhance accessible train services, the railway is still far from disabled-friendly.

Findings from our recent research support this. They identified a severe lack of accessibility awareness across the sector as a whole. According to the results, over a quarter of transport hubs are still unable to fully accommodate wheelchair users or those with autism.

This highlights that more must be done to improve the situation. This can be achieved in a variety of ways, from training staff to understand the needs of disabled passengers to ensuring that both physical and digital offerings are user-friendly and inclusive. With this in mind, let’s explore ways the UK’s railway network can be made accessible to all.

Physical obstacles

To ensure every passenger experiences a seamless train journey, all aspects of the country’s railway infrastructure needs to be designed with the UK’s 11 million disabled individuals in mind.

Despite investment into train stations across the UK – such as at Teesside, which recently received a £15 million accessibility fund – there are still many stations that are yet to address their inaccessible spaces.

As it stands, disabled passengers say the majority of stations and trains are so poorly designed it makes them feel like ‘an afterthought’. Recently, one individual stated that even stations that have installed ramps have built them so steep it is almost impossible to use them without assistance.

Key to rectifying this situation is to design inclusively with disabled passengers at the centre of the planning process. It is important to scrutinise all aspects of the railway’s physical accessibility – from station carparks to cafes, to train toilets. Asking questions such as: “Would someone who is blind, deaf, in a wheelchair or has cognitive impairments easily be able to get from A to B?”

If at any point the answer to these questions comes back as ‘no’, then it is clear something needs to be done to resolve these shortcomings. There are countless modifications that can help the railway sector become instantly more accommodating to disabled travellers, some of which are outlined below:

Car parks – there needs to be ample disabled parking close to station entrances. These spaces must also be large enough to allow passengers to comfortably get in and out of their vehicles.

Waiting areas – stations must have waiting areas with sufficient seating reserved for those with disabilities. Plus, there should be separate, quieter rooms or areas where passengers can escape from the typically loud train station environment.

Signs and information – all information should be provided both orally and visually. Hence, signs should use bold contrasting colours, be well lit and have obvious braille translations. Induction loops should also be installed.

Toilets – these should be on every platform and at least one toilet block including a disabled cubicle should be open at all times. These need to be created with the user in mind, for example, with lowered seating and wider doorways.

Wheel-friendly access – every platform should have a lift, which projects an audible tone when the doors open and close. Platforms should also be equipped with multiple ramps to enable step-free access on and off trains. Additionally, train doorways and corridors need to be wide enough to fit a standard wheelchair.

Something to also consider when carrying out such improvements is to run the plans past a focus group of people with differing abilities. To maximise the effectiveness of this process, it should be carried out at various points of the planning process. This will help to ensure that the changes being made are fit for purpose.

Online disability design guidelines are available to check what changes need to be made to any given station. This resource should be used.

Personal touches

While making the rail network physically accessible is a major priority, well-designed bricks and mortar can only go so far. This is why it is equally important to ensure people are on hand to assist passengers throughout their journey.

For example, employees should be clearly visible at all points of a person’s trip to provide assistance. This could vary from guiding a traveller through a busy station to helping someone on or off of a train.

Additionally, to give the highest level of service, staff must be trained to properly understand the various requirements of a wide range of passengers. Enrolling employees onto courses, such as those provided by the National Disability Authority (NDA), is a great way to achieve this. The NDA’s e-learning module is a quick option for employers, but there are also dedicated trainers across the country that are available to meet staff and demonstrate how to effectively cater for disabled customers.

Digital transformation

Not only does the railway network need to be physically accessible; its online presence also needs to reflect this strategy.

Fundamentally, this needs to be more than just a box-ticking exercise to meet the accessibility standards outlined by the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. Hence, designers cannot just copy and paste accessible features over the top of previously excluding design. This will never be as effective as tailored coding and will reinforce the view that accessibility is an afterthought.

Instead, research must be conducted into people’s various needs and motivations, tailoring a website’s design accordingly. For example, if a blind person was to try and book train tickets online, they would need an oral description of all of the options available to them, including any time-sensitive discount codes and deals.

Here are a few simple features that should be included to ensure full web accessibility:

  • Text size – make sure this is adjustable.
  • Visual effects – make these optional by allowing users to turn them on and off where required.
  • Links – make clickable links larger than surrounding text.
  • Video accessibility – ensure videos are closed-captioned or there is a sign language version available.

Staying on track

While it is easy to take a look at the above pointers and vow to put them into practice, it is not going to be a quick fix. It is, therefore, important to maintain momentum and address these problems indefinitely.

People with ranging abilities will – like anyone – always need to use the railway system. It is, therefore, critically important to recognise that it is non-inclusive design that disables passengers and prevents them from accessing services – not those individuals’ varying requirements. By striving to create a rail network with everyone in mind, its physical and digital presence will become more accessible to all.


Hilary Stephenson

Managing Director


Tel: +44 (0)1625 427 718





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