Rail accessibility and the effect of steps

A step, or two for most people isn’t too much of a problem. However, if you want to get a lot of people on and off a train quickly, these steps become a problem. In 2013, I led some work to investigate the effect of vertical heights, and therefore steps, would have on people’s ability to board and alight the UK’s High Speed Rail 2 (HS2) project. When we published the report, I received three emails almost immediately from accessibility groups and leaders in this field – was it ‘my’ report that was making HS2 inaccessible? Nothing was further from the truth, and our paper, based on the report, recently won an award. The Alfred Rosling Bennet Premium/Charles S Lake Award. It’s a mouthful and I’ll get to Charles and Albet later. First, HS2 and accessibility.

HS2 & Accessibility

For those who don’t know HS2 is a big deal in the UK, as it is a very large and therefore very expensive project. It would seem inconceivable that when building it we would not  make it accessible for disabled people. However, there was a problem – interoperability.

Our study was commissioned  by HS2 through their commitment to inclusive design. Within this document was a conflict between accessibility and interoperability. Accessibility – the design process embraced the social model of disability. Interoperability – the service would comply with the European Railway Agency’s Persons of Reduced Mobility Technical Specification for Interoperability (PRM TSI).

These two requirements, happen to clash. The social model defines disability as a limitation imposed by the environment and society, and as such HS2 was keen to ‘remove barriers, both in procedure and in attitude, to use of the HS2 network’. This included steps. Level access most believe is a good idea, not just for wheelchair users, but for all users of the rail network. However, the PRM TSI is in place to ensure trains across Europe can operate on one another’s lines, and due to historical reasons, this means a vertical gap, which necessitates steps.


Mock-up platform train interface showing the 3-step configuration
Mock-up platform train interface showing the 3-step configuration

This conflict, like most, was an opportunity. We believed the moral argument for level access was very clear and was covered by the UN Convention for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and the Equalities Act. What was less clear was the case for everyone. What exactly was the effect of steps on people’s ability to board and alight a train? What effect did age, or carrying luggage make? Was a big suitcase as difficult as a pushchair? Ultimately, what would be the effects on time. Time is important when running trains. you need people to get on and off quickly at busy interchanges. So, would steps effect HS2’s ability to run the capacity it was hoping for at key interchanges?

To answer this question we hired people of different ages to take part in an experiment at UCL’s PAMELA facility and asked them to get on and off a mock up of the platform train interface with varying levels of luggage. The mock-up and participants are shown below.

Image shows the heads of people getting on and off the mock-up train interface
Overhead shot of the experiment

The answers were clear. Steps are hard if you are older, and harder still if you are carrying luggage. Without a reduction in the vertical gap running the number of trains at key stations would be a challenge. this can be seen below in the chart which shows the effect of level access (bottom), one step (middle) and two steps (top). When access is level age does not effect a person’s ability to board or alight; and everyone is able to do this within 2.5s. Once a step is introduced the variability in boarding and alighting time goes up greatly. It also takes everyone longer, and takes older people longer than younger people. So in effect it creates a barrier for older people which can be quantified in the 5s it takes for the oldest group to board or alight the train.

A bar chart showing that across all ages there is little difference with age; however, with the addition of a step the time to board doubles on average and increases with age
The effect of number of steps and age of people, on the time to board and alight.

But who are Alfred and Charles?

For this work we were awarded the Alfred Rosling Bennet Premium/Charles S Lake Award. This is the Railway Division prize for best paper. Brilliant. But, who were Alfred and Charles? I was intrigued. Charles it turns out is a difficult man to find anything about, all I can say is that he must have been much respected by Mr W G Tilling, who left the award in his name. Alfred, on the other hand, was easier to track down and according to his obituary, was ‘perhaps, the most interesting of the pioneers of telephony in this country‘. He was instrumental in developing the cabling system we all complain about paying for when we see ‘landline charge‘ on our Internet bills. It is still true that his ‘over-roof pole-and-wire work remains standard to-day‘. And so not only did I win an award but I shall feel less annoyed each time I see that charge at the start of my bill.

More seriously, I was pleased to read he was a very active, alert and high-spirited type of person, who threw this energy into this great new telecoms business he needed to create. I will look to tap into this in future work as we grow the Global disability Innovation Hub and hope his great design and originality can in some way rub off on me.

Further information on railway accessibility