UTS student completing a Masters in Advanced Journalism. Areas of interest include style, subculture, education and community action.
Almost half the train network in Sydney is still inaccessible to people in wheelchairs and is in danger of missing a federal compliance deadline.
Currently 34% of stations in Sydney’s suburban network, and 47% of stations in the Intercity network remain inaccessible to wheelchair users. In total, 45% of the entire Sydney Trains network is inaccessible to wheelchair users.
In four years, the network is required by Federal Government legislation to be fully accessible but their are doubts the NSW Government will be compliant by then.
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, more than four million people in Australia had some form of disability in 2015. 4.4% of these people use wheelchairs and a further 14.9% use other forms of mobility aids such as canes or walkers.
For most commuters getting on a train is as easy as showing up to the nearest train station at the scheduled time, tapping on and boarding. But for passengers with mobility issues and those who rely on a wheelchair to get around, it can become a whole lot more complicated.
One wheelchair user impacted by this lack of accessibility is Robin Eames, a writer and student at Sydney University who runs a facebook page called Notes toward the accessible revolution which advocates for people with disabilities.
Robin avoids using trains because stations around Annandale, where they live, aren’t accessible. However, they prefer to use trains to buses, because trains are smoother and faster.
“Buses can be quite dangerous on hills and over potholes, I don’t have anti-tip bars so I tip backwards a lot and have to just hold on for dear life, but often the grab bars are not placed in useful positions so I dislocate my shoulders holding on,” Robin said.
“The buses have seatbelts that I can wrap around my crossbar on the back of my wheelchair, but often the seatbelts are not actually long enough to reach, presumably because they’re designed with pram handles in mind. I also don’t like having to face backwards.”
Robin said the first time they tried to catch the train in a wheelchair it was a “total nightmare”.
Wheelchair users hoping to catch the train are supposed to call ahead to let the station know that they’ll be coming so that the station can prepare for them, which can be difficult for people with auditory processing issues like Robin. If it’s after staffed hours, there’s no way for wheelchair users to get the train at all.
“At accessible stations they keep portable ramps on the platforms but a guard has to know ahead of time that I’m getting on or off the train, because they have to unlock the ramp and bring it over to the carriage,” Robin said.
“There are designated accessible carriages that have an area where the seats fold up, but they’re in a different place every time – sometimes there’s a symbol on the platform showing me where I need to wait, but often there isn’t, or it’s hard to find if the platform is crowded.”
However, the Disability Standards for Accessible Public Transport legislation requires all modern train stations in both NSW and other states to have wheelchair accessibility by 2022.
To meet this target of 100% accessibility Transport for NSW has put in place a new Disability Inclusion Action Plan for 2018 to 2022. This action plan includes several projects underway to upgrade train stations, ferry wharves and interchanges
But some advocacy groups worry that Transport NSW’s Disability Inclusion Action Plan is not clear or ambitious enough to meet that target.
“In many areas the proposed action items appear to leave Transport for NSW falling significantly short of what is required under the Disability Standards, thus leaving its agencies at risk of disability discrimination complaints for not fulfilling its obligations,” according to the Public Interest Advocacy Centre in a submission to Transport NSW.
Senior policy adviser for People With Disabilities, Samantha French, said while it was “fantastic” that the NSW Government was making some progress in terms of accessibility, she didn't believe the 2022 deadline would be met if more funding wasn’t allocated.
“I doubt very much, even if I don’t have the full data, that at this level of funding the target will be met,” Ms French said.
Earlier this month, Premier Gladys Berejiklian announced that a further $133 million would be allocated to the Transport Access Program for the new financial year. This comes from a funding pool of around $72 billion dollars which the NSW government promised to spend on infrastructure over the next four years.
“We are committed to making public transport accessible for customers with a disability, less mobile customers or customers using a pram and that is why this budget includes funding to upgrade accessibility to at least 11 more stations across the State,” Ms Berejiklian said.
The stations set to be upgraded across the Sydney trains and regional train link networks are Wyee, Blayney, North Strathfield, Kingswood, Hazelbrook, Mittagong, Hawkesbury River, Wahroonga, Clarendon, Taree and Roseville.
Currently, 61 stations are inaccessible on the suburban network and 138 stations are inaccessible on the Intercity network. These updates only account for five suburban stations and four Intercity stations. This means 31% of suburban stations and 45% of intercity stations will still need to be upgraded before the 2022 deadline.
NSW isn’t alone in this, according to Ms. French. Other states are also at risk of being non-compliant if accessibility isn’t prioritised.
“Accessibility and upgrades needs to be a much higher priority across the country to ensure greater compliance and to ensure the whole journey is accessible for people with disability,” she said.
But the issue of train station accessibility is even more complex when other factors are considered.
Frequent lift outages mean that stations, or platforms, which are ordinarily accessible often become inaccessible for days at a time. Between June and December last year Transport for NSW logged 1000 alerts about lift outages across the network. August alone had 180 alerts about lift outages.
This lack of reliability makes wheelchair users who rely on lifts for accessibility lose trust in the train network, Ms French said.
“When we talk about access we often say there’s three key components to ensuring an accessible built environment- consistency, reliability and predictability,” she said.
“So with regard to lifts being out of service in train stations, people with disability are often arriving at a station to find that they are unable to access it and that leads to lack of trust in our transport system.”
For those wheelchair users who can’t access public transport or afford a taxi fair, social isolation is a real threat.
Ms. French said that a goal of simply being compliant was not enough and governments needed to be looking beyond the numbers to creating a culture of accessibility on public transport networks.
She praised the Federal Government Department of Infrastructure’s Whole of Journey guide as a step in the right direction. The guide recognises the varied needs amongst people with disabilities and takes a human-centred approach to designing accessible infrastructure.
“By taking this approach, accessibility, universal design and human-centred design considerations are brought to the forefront rather than being an afterthought. It’s about people and their journeys, not just public transport infrastructure,” according to the guide.
The office for advocacy group People With Disabilities is located in Redfern, where the station is only partially accessible. Ms French said members of staff had faced similar issues getting to work and some had been forgotten about by station staff who were supposed to help them disembark.
Ms. French said the participation of people with disabilities in the policy making process was crucial.
“When you involve people with disabilities you really get to hear what they experience on a practical daily level across their whole journey.”
Disabled activists have long been involved in campaigning for accessibility. When the Eastern Suburbs line station in Bondi Junction opened in 1979, a supposedly state-of-the-art transport hub, it was inaccessible to users of wheelchairs.
A small group of wheelchair users and their supporters, including Joan Hume, showed up to protest at the opening. Later, Premier Neville Wran who was officiating at the event, acknowledged that it was his experience seeing this protest that motivated him to start the wheelchair taxi subsidy program.
Robin gives credit for the current level of accessibility to the disability activists who were often unknown to the broader public.
“I think a lot of people don’t realise that we actually only have the limited amount of public transport accessibility that we do now because of disability activists who used to go out and park their wheelchairs at intersections in front of buses, or block train platforms protesting inaccessibility.”
Transport for NSW recommends wheelchair users or people with limited mobility hoping to use public transport download a trip planning app to help them reach their destination.