As Government funding for London’s transport network dries up, so do promised improvements to access – with just 33% of the Underground step-free

As a wheelchair user, IT consultant Jeff Harvey relies on using lifts to access the Underground.

“I always have to plan alternate routes depending on anytime there’s a lift in my journey,” he said. Unexpected lift closures can add an hour on to his travel time.

Currently, 90 tube stations on London’s Underground network are step-free – equating to just 33% – meaning that, when lifts are unavailable, people unable to use steps must find an alternative route or go to another accessible station by taxi at the cost of Transport for London (TfL).

In September, an unreported lift closure at Liverpool Street Station delayed Harvey by an hour on his way home to Walthamstow after visiting Liverpool. “If they’d updated this information, I’d have seen the lift status and known to get off at Moorgate which is now step-free and rolled to Liverpool Street in 10 minutes,” he wrote in a Twitter thread relaying the occasion. 

TfL recorded 10 lift breakdowns at Liverpool Street Station between January and November 2021. Lifts in 44 stations across the London Underground network broke down 10 or more times during those 11 months, with lifts in five stations breaking down more than 50 times.

In total, TfL recorded 1,347 lift breakdowns across 85 Underground stations from January to 12 November 2021.

In 2016, the Mayor of London promised £200 million to make 40% of the tube network step-free by 2022. But, following a slump in numbers using the Underground during the Coronavirus pandemic, TfL is said to be facing a funding gap up of to £1.7 billion over the next financial year and is set to axe step-free upgrades if additional funding is not secured. 

Step-free improvements in at least three tube stations have already been paused owing to lack of funds. During Mayor’s Question Time last February, Sadiq Khan said that work to make Burnt Oak, Northolt and Hanger Lane stations step-free had been “paused pending further discussions with the Government on the funding support TfL needs following the impact of Coronavirus on its finances”.

A Department for Transport funding package worth more than £1 billion is due to run out this week, following a six-week extension to the terms in December, when Khan warned that TfL’s financial situation could lead to closing a tube line and slashing 100 bus routes. 

A Department for Transport spokesperson told Byline Times that the Government has “repeatedly demonstrated its unwavering commitment to supporting London’s transport network” with more than £4 billion in emergency funding.

“We continue to discuss further funding requirements with TfL and the Mayor, and any future support provided will continue to focus on moving TfL back onto a more financially sustainable footing, in a way that provides value for money and is fair to taxpayers across the country,” they added.

TfL confirmed that, if sufficient long-term funding is not secured, “investment in further improving step-free access at stations would be impacted”.

A spokesperson told Byline Times: “This would likely mean that no step-free access schemes, other than those which are currently in construction, would be completed – unless they were funded by third parties.”

Even before proposed cuts, TfL’s accessibility improvements miss the mark.

Step-free improvements “don’t always create level access between the platform and the train”, according to the TfL website, meaning that a manual ramp must be positioned to allow wheelchair users to board trains. 

“We’ve got to get the Government to legislate for what’s called ‘level boarding’,” said Ian Cook, who campaigns for step-free access in all stations across the country. “They’re building stations at the moment and they’re saying they’re step free stations – they are to the platform, but not the platform to the train.”

Organising ramps creates a mental strain on passengers with disabilities. Cook said it is “humiliating” for disabled people to not be able to get off trains. 

“A lot of people find it really discouraging, a real mental stress, that they have to fight all the time,” added leading disability campaigner Alan Benson.

People with disabilities also still face issues traveling by bus, despite all London buses having low-floors, access ramps and a dedicated wheelchair space.

“Every time I get to a stop to use the bus, my stress levels go up because I don’t know if the bus coming is going to have someone in the space already,” said Jeff Harvey. 

He told Byline Times that drivers often fail to ask non-disabled people to vacate the dedicated wheelchair space or that people can be unwilling to move their luggage or prams from the space.

Slashing bus routes could be detrimental, added Benson.

“If there are fewer buses, the buses are fuller so the chances are I’m not going to be able to get on,” he said. “The implications of these cuts are much bigger than [step-free] access. It’s also affecting the little things. Access is a lot about publishing the right information.”

But a TfL briefing paper from November suggests that data and technology improvements, including upgrades to planning step-free journeys, could be slashed.

The transport network already fails to provide all information passengers with disabilities find useful. The website Up Down London, which tracks lift closures at tube stations, was created by disability activists who wanted to collate live information on TfL lift closures in one accessible place. 

In the 2018 Inclusive Transport Strategy, the Government promised to create a transport system that offers equal access for disabled passengers by 2030. The national Disability Strategy published last July reasserted its commitment to improve accessibility on transport across the nation.

“All these strategies, all these targets, disabled people are quite exhausted by them,” Alan Benson told Byline Times. He wants to see action that backs up Government strategy. 

But in London, the question remains as to how TfL will fund this action. 

“[It] would make a huge difference in my life,” said Jeff Harvey. “That funding cut… has me worried.”

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