In response to a parliamentary debate, initiated and led by Rory yesterday on disabled access at train stations, Minister for Transport Norman Baker, confirmed that Penrith station was a “strong candidate” for new investment in disabled access, and promised also to assess existing criteria and ensure that it took account of a station’s rurality also.

The debate, which drew broad cross-party support from a number of colleagues, was the culmination of Rory’s long-standing campaign to improve disabled access at Penrith Station in his constituency. Rory’s campaign began with strong lobbying of all franchise bidders ahead of the West Coast tendering process of 2012, during which time Rory met with each bidder to request a commitment to the necessary upgrades to the station. The commitment came from First Group, the original franchisee, but stalled when Virgin Trains successfully challenged the tendering process. Rory resumed his campaign with numerous meetings and conversations with Virgin, Network Rail, and the Department for Transport, receiving in June strong indication that the station would be included in the next tranche of Access for All funding.

Currently, the station remains without northbound access for wheelchairs and other users, even though the station receives fourteen booked requests for disabled assistance per day and many more unbooked and – as Rory raised in the debate – are forced to be guided across the extremely dangerous and outdated barrow crossing. The MP raised the story of his constituents and local businesspeople, Adrian and Elaine Waite of Appleby, who are forced to use Carlisle station given Mrs Waite’s reduced mobility due to severe arthritis.

Rory said: “Disabled access matters enormously. The number of disabled people using trains has risen by 58% over the past five years – that equates to 72 million rail journeys by disabled people in 2012. Not only the disabled at Penrith are affected, but the elderly, those with push chairs, even tourists, who have to negotiate 45 steps with a 35kg suitcase.

But it remains challenging to make the necessary improvements in many smaller, more rural train stations, like Penrith. The Government tends to focus on footfall when deciding where to prioritise access funding, and misses a lot of detail in so doing. It misses the fact that a remote, rural station already likely suffers from issues of poor public transport provision. It misses issues of demographics – the fact that constituencies like my own have significant ageing populations. I have been struck by how generous the Government has been over the last 20 years, supporting those with disabilities in education, in providing mentoring in the workplace. We have worked well in hospitals, libraries and community halls, but the great remaining challenge I feel is transport: a sector which has not quite reached the same standard of other public service provisions in meeting the needs of disabled people. Every party should be proud of the extraordinary amount Britain has achieved for disabled rights and disabled access since the 1970s. We must combine this achievement with the infrastructure commitments of this Government, and in so doing, look forward to the day when visitors can step off the train at Penrith and see a new lift which is not just an article of public convenience, but a symbol of British civilisation.”

Transport Minister Norman Baker’s response was extremely positive: “Penrith station is a strong candidate for upgrading. It has come very close in the past to being nominated for Access for All, and I am aware that it is one of very few stations on the West Coast mainline without proper access. I expect the nomination process to be completed by the end of the year, and we should be in a position to announce successful stations by April 2014. It is an important link in the chain of National Express coaches, and for bus services to other parts of Cumbria. We have a huge task of opening up the full railway network to disabled passengers – which is of course what we want to do. The Government remains committed to providing further support, and has expanded the “Access for All” programme, providing a further £100m for rail improvements up until 2019. Based on what I have heard today, I will ask officials to consider the fact that future criteria should also take into account rurality.”

Rory will continue to campaign to improve access at Penrith railway station, and would like to thank all constituents who contributed their stories for the purpose of his campaign and the parliamentary debate. Rory concluded: “What Penrith needs and would dearly love, is a footbridge, with a lift either side, that allows safe and easy access to the northbound platform. It is already an extraordinary achievement that you can get from London to Penrith in 3 hours and 15 minutes, and this has had a huge transformation on our economy – for tourism, for small businesses, for connecting Penrith to the rest of the country and abroad. We are still being held back however, by what would probably be a relatively small investment of a few hundred thousand pounds, to make Penrith properly accessible.”

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