Unfortunately, the majority of stations and trains are not designed to be compatible. This is because stations were built by many historic companies with different standards, and because trains with a variety of floor heights have been used over time. Curved platforms make things even more complicated by changing the distance from the train to the platform.
As a result, significant steps and gaps exist for passengers on stations across the GB railway network, and staff have to use ramps to provide step-free boarding.
To minimise the gap between the platform and train, all platforms need to be corrected to a standard position. At the same time, all new trains need to have floors that match this platform height. Retractable devices known as gap fillers can then reduce the distance between the train and the platform through curved platforms.
We need to do both simultaneously.
A rolling programme of platform corrections, and introduction of a new procurement standard, should be started as soon as possible.
It will take time to achieve low-floor trains on a meaningful scale, as train procurement takes time and relies on previous stock reaching the end of its useful life. However, we can agree a standard now to ensure all new trains have the potential to provide level boarding.
Platform corrections will need to be tied into existing work wherever possible, but will require additional funding to be extended across the network.
Despite standards existing now that provide level boarding, new trains are still being built and operated that have a floor that is around 200mm above the national standard platform height.
In some cases, new infrastructure such as Crossrail and High Speed 2 is being designed and built with high platforms and high-floor trains that lock-in this incompatibility. While these high platforms allow level boarding in the new central stations, the new trains will also stop at existing stations which must use standard platforms (in order to accommodate freight trains). Level boarding will be impossible at these stations.
If our approach was used instead, all new stations would have standard platforms and new “low-floor” trains would match the platform height at both new and existing stations.
Two thirds of Britain’s 6000 platforms are on curves. Where these curves are particularly tight, the gap between the train and the platform has to be increased to make sure that trains can pass safely.
This can be resolved by providing an extendable step or gap filler at train doors, as is common on trains in mainland Europe.
Britain’s railways carry a huge mixture of passenger and freight traffic. Installing humps to raise the platform height to match current high train floors would result in a clash with freight trains unless the gap from the train to the platform was increased.
At stations with low platforms, humps are already used to raise platforms to the standard height. However, this is only a temporary measure, and restricts what trains can use the platform as the train doors and platform humps have to be in the same place.
Ramps are heavy, require special training and increase the time that trains have to wait at platforms. When a ramp or trained member of staff is not available, passengers relying on them aren’t able to get on or off the train.
Many passengers in wheelchairs have had multiple experiences of being left on trains when there are no staff to meet them with a ramp at their destination. It causes tremendous stress and worry and means that some disabled people are too nervous to travel.
The need for level boarding is also one of safety. Unlike all other sources of harm on the railway, incidents at the “platform train interface” (as it is called in the industry) account for an increasing number of injuries and deaths. This is unacceptable, and investing in level boarding is an important way to reverse this trend.
Around a fifth of disabled people report having difficulties in accessing transport. Our railway has discriminated against disabled people for long enough, and ensuring that passengers can get on and off trains independently is vital in reversing this situation. Doing so will also make life easier for passengers with luggage or buggies.
There is a final key benefit of level boarding, and that is in improving the operation of the railway itself. By dispensing with the need for ramps for wheelchair users and for staff using catering trollies, train and station staff no longer need to move heavy ramps around (for which they need special training) and the time that trains wait at stations can be reduced too. This means less unplanned delays, but can also increase timetabled train frequencies and journey times, too.
Actually, it is often the newer stations with concrete or timber surfaces that are more complex to resolve. However, it is true that pedestrian subways, low footbridges and other interfaces make platform alterations at older stations complex.
By creating a rolling programme of platform corrections, the design and construction team doing the work will build up valuable experience in resolving these challenges. In the case of major stations that require alterations (such as at Clapham Junction), significant station reconstruction is being planned already.
Construction work at platforms is not cheap, with minor corrections costing £50,000 or more. Major platform works can cost in excess of £1 million. Much of this cost is associated with closing the railway to allow the construction work to take place safely.
However, the annual amount invested in railway infrastructure by Network Rail is in the region of £7 billion. If the government and rail industry followed its own rules in allocating spending based on risk (using a process called the Common Safety Method), an annual sum of £770 million would be invested in resolving the safety challenges at the platform train interface. Even a fraction of this amount would be transformative.
Level boarding is being progressed all around the world, even in countries with very old railway infrastructure. Please take a look at our Case Study page to see the work being done in the Netherlands and Spain.