Michael with his 44 years of rail experience and Claire with her background in biomedical technology look at the role that automation can play in making the railway more accessible.
All train operating companies are required to comply with legislation such as the Equalities Act 2010 and their franchise commitments. They also have to comply with their Disabled Persons' Protection Policy which is agreed with the Office of Road and Rail and sets out how they will protect the interests of disabled users of their trains and stations. But it's not just about compliance and disability.
Anyone travelling by train and working in rail over the last few decades will have seen things get so much better. Improvements such as step-free access, better signage and audio announcements, colour-coded routes through stations, dedicated on-train spaces, installation of lifts and ramps actually help everyone.
RSSB is proud to play a role delivering research to further improve accessibility on the railway. In the past we looked atand, more recently, at , and there is more underway. A research project has recently started which aims to develop guidance on making rail services more accessible, in particular to passengers with cognitive impairments and hidden disabilities who face barriers to using the rail network. Also, in September 2017, RSSB and the Department for Transport launched the to offer grants to small and medium-sized enterprises, universities, charities, infrastructure managers or train operating companies whose innovative ideas will make a difference to the lives of disabled passengers and those with less visible impairments travelling on the railway.
Accessibility beyond traditional mobility impairment: trends and opportunities
According to the Office of National Statistics, the proportion of the UK population who could be described as of 'traditional working age' (16 to 64 years old) has remained relatively stable over the last 40 years, but is projected to decline in future years as a result of the growth of an ageing and increasing population. Life expectancy over the last few decades has been steadily increasing, due to improved healthcare and lifestyles, although this is slowing down.
With an increasing age profile and 42% of adults over state pension age suffering some form of disability (), the number of people with apparent or invisible disabilities has and will continue to increase.
As demand for transport services by older and disabled people grows, and much of this increasing demand may well happen off-peak, rail has an opportunity. We know that rail is an attractive alternative for those preferring not to use the car, or unable to do so. But we also know that those with a disability are less likely to use rail than those without. Furthermore, we also know that the interchange is where accessibility tends to break down.
Meeting the needs and aspirations of these potential new users, many of whom are more demanding than their younger and more mobile counterparts, is a challenge. Their requirements range from traditional mobility aids - such as easy and consistent provision of access for wheelchair and mobility scooter users - to better, more diverse information systems and personalised end-to-end journey service provision.
Boarding and alighting: one key long standing concern for accessibility groups
The recent question of whether Driver Controlled Operation (DCO) has an impact on accessibility is a logical one to ask, as it has been part of the guard's function, under certain circumstances, to provide assistance.
In fact, a move to DCO doesn't make any real difference. However, any move to Driver Only Operation must be properly managed and the most appropriate arrangements will vary depending on the presence of one or more on-train customer service staff, on whether stations are staffed or unstaffed, and whether equipment is part of the train or has to be deployed at the station.
London Overground managed this change by matching its withdrawal of the guard's role on most of its services with improved station staffing and removing the need for wheelchair users to pre-book – creating a 'turn up and go' service at all stations with suitable physical access.
In cases where the guard's role no longer includes door operation, but where onboard staff are still deployed, this can free up staff to carry out more customer-focused tasks, including giving reassurance and support for customers with disability needs. Automation in this context can be an opportunity to focus on how staff can meet all passengers' needs in the best way without adding cost.
Technology-driven intermodal solutions are fast-moving
Across the globe, cutting edge technological solutions are increasingly being explored to improve the independence and mobility of the disabled. Many of these technologies will hand more power to transport users to access the network independently, rather than leaving them beholden to other parties to meet their needs.
A major change in the accessibility of transport for the disabled will come from the development of autonomous vehicles. Developments such as smart, physically assistive personal devices are now coming to market and offer solutions previously unimagined, for example thebeing developed by Toyota and Deka, capable of climbing stairs and elevating its occupant to a standing position. 'Smart' wheelchairs fitted with GPS and obstacle sensors are also in development and can provide varying degrees of assistance tailored to the needs of their occupant. Mobility will also be enhanced by the dramatic improvements underway in smart prosthetics, which have greatly improved controls thanks to better sensors, connectivity and processing power. Simultaneously, processes such as 3D printing have made more affordable.
Information systems and their key role in making rail accessible
A fundamental requirement to make rail accessible is to provide accurate and pertinent information to those who need it. As the world becomes more and more connected, the quality of information we can provide, and how we can deliver it to users, continues to improve. Apps which tell their user the departure times, platforms, changes and step-free routes along their journey are hugely valuable to rail users with mobility issues. More ambitious projects now include , which won an award as a navigation aid for the London Underground last year, and , which guides users through stations using Bluetooth beacons. Google's Disability Impact Challenge, which recently funded '', which crowd sources descriptive 'clues' to guide users to their correct platform or bus stop, addressing the frustrating 'last 50 feet problem' remnant in GPS navigation. Speech-to-Text apps can also be invaluable to the deaf.
Outside smartphones, wearable technologies are also transforming accessibility to information. Smart glasses are experiencing a resurgence of popularity among the visually impaired, who can now access services such as remote human agents, who can see what they see and provide verbal assistance, or computer algorithms for object identification and avoidance, and text-to-speech translation. Haptic , and fitted with object sensors and GPS have also been developed, which can inconspicuously use vibrations to guide their wearer through complex environments. companies and are also increasingly using induction loop technology to transmit audio announcements directly to the hearing aids of deaf users. A plethora of other technological advancements, including personal guidance drones in stations, have been suggested which could improve the accessibility of rail travel in the future.
With all the excitement that new technology can bring to accessibility, it is important not to forget the less technological measures mentioned earlier, and to recognise that the elderly might shy away from technology solutions.
Opportunities and risks for future accessibility
Automation, in all its forms, has the potential to make rail more accessible and more desirable for passengers. It can free up rail staff to ensure better assistance when its needed, provide more accurate information and make rail stations, trains and services such as ticketing easier to access and navigate whatever the disability. It is essential that our industry looks at the whole journey and work together with other transport providers to deliver a seamless experience across all modes – local, feeder, and long distance, whether by car, bus, taxi, train or plane. We know we haven't got it completely right yet and there is a way to go.
Making best use of the technology available to enhance the passenger experience – disabled or not – has the potential to open rail to new customers, bring benefits to all our users and ensure rail will continue to have a key part to play in a modern, effective and accessible transport system for all. But is rail ready to embrace the challenge and make substantial and rapid progress in adopting the technologies and customer-focussed attitude that is needed? The shortcoming and risks of limited and slow action are clear and significant. Therefore, there is a strong need for industry and government to embed accessibility in the thinking and way of doing things in rail, and make the adoption of accessibility-driven solutions and technologies one of our priorities.
In the next article Greg Morse, Lead Operational Feedback Specialist, considers passengers perception and how automation may enrich or jeopardise their journey experience.