The narrative spun by Network Rail paints a picture of relentless pursuit of modernisation and improved connectivity. The promise? A transformed railway system fit for the 21st century. But as the adage goes, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”, and in this case it seems to be railroads replacing level crossings that are steering us towards a countryside dystopia.
Take the case of Copmanthorpe, a village just outside of York. The proposed replacement of a level crossing with a stepped footbridge has been met with vehement resistance. Copmanthorpe Parish Council, Bishopthorpe Parish Council, City of York Council, York Green Party, York’s disability campaigners, and active travel campaigners all stand unified in opposition, voicing concerns over long-term accessibility.
But let’s take a step back and consider the broader picture. The issue isn’t just about Copmanthorpe or the ill-conceived footbridge. It’s about a flawed pattern of decision-making at Network Rail that’s threatening to make the countryside inaccessible.
Network Rail: making the countryside inaccessible
This pattern is not limited to a single location. For instance, Network Rail has also drawn criticism for its decision to install an ‘innovative’ but completely inaccessible ‘FLOW’ railway footbridge in Wistanstow, Shropshire. This new design has caused anger among many accessible transport campaigners, who have accused the organisation of throwing access “under the bus”.
In Wokingham, Berkshire, Network Rail is set to replace two run-down inaccessible bridges near the town centre. But the planned new single footbridge that will replace them will also only be accessible to pedestrians who can use steps unless the local council can obtain the necessary funding and planning permission for an accessible version by August.
In a letter to Wokingham Borough Council, Network Rail said the construction of an accessible bridge was “deemed to be unviable at this time” but that the bridge “has been designed to allow for modification to make it fully accessible should this become a possibility in the future”.
In Copmanthorpe Network Rail has used a similar argument to the one it used in Shropshire, arguing that the crossing was not currently used by anyone with reduced mobility because of rough terrain on either side and that an accessible bridge would cost millions more pounds to build, while the ramps would be “visually intrusive”.
Poor diversity impact assessment and lack of consultation
Network Rail’s diversity impact assessment, the supposedly robust mechanism for evaluating the impact of such projects, is under fire. Critics argue that it fails to fully grasp the extent to which these changes might affect individuals with protected characteristics. Wheelchair users already proved that the current path is accessible and usable and prams and pushchairs are also regular occurrences.
But it’s not just about who can climb the steps today; it’s about who might struggle tomorrow. The current path is designated as an opportunity for active travel improvements between the villages in York’s draft Local Cycling and Working Infrastructure Plan an opportunity lost without an accessible alternative for the level crossing.
The consultation process itself is a circus of exclusion, conveniently overlooking key stakeholders like York Disability Forum and residents in the village of Bishopthorpe on the other side of the railway. Not exactly the transparent, inclusive approach you’d expect from an organisation responsible for public infrastructure.
Fencing off the countryside
Network Rail’s approach to level crossings could be a harbinger of a worrying trend – a trend that risks fencing off the countryside, particularly for the most vulnerable groups. The Equality Act 2010 and the public sector equality duty are not just checkboxes on a compliance form; they are designed to prevent exactly this kind of discriminatory impact. And yet, here we are.
Now, let’s consider the climate change implications. In their rush to transform, Network Rail seems to have missed a crucial memo: the UK government’s climate change strategies. The push for more sustainable, active forms of travel is being undermined by these very infrastructural changes. Without accessible routes, the vision for green growth is little more than a pipe dream.
Network Rail’s defence? Changing the proposed order would delay the process due to resource and scheduling constraints. In other words, they’re claiming the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. But when did it become acceptable to dismiss the concerns of entire communities because it’s more convenient?
Communities, councils, and campaigners are not asking for miracles. They are proposing alternative solutions like a ramped bridge, which would ensure equal access for all residents. It’s not just about inclusivity; it’s about aligning with the country’s strategies for equality, active travel, and climate change.
Railroad to countryside inaccessibility?
As the saga unfolds, it’s clear that Network Rail’s decisions on rail crossing replacements could significantly shape the UK’s accessibility landscape. The controversy in Copmanthorpe is not an isolated incident; it’s a symptom of a systemic issue that needs addressing.
Network Rail’s actions are a stark reminder that a single-minded pursuit of modernisation without inclusivity can lead to an inaccessible countryside. So, as we watch the drama in Copmanthorpe unfold, the question remains: Will Network Rail heed the voices advocating for a more accessible countryside, or will they continue to lay tracks to a more exclusive future?