Sight Loss and Public Transport
As an RNIB Champion, I take a very close interest in issues affecting those with sight loss. I am committed to ensuring those who experience sight loss do not lose access to the parts of daily life we take for granted, such as public transport.
The Government has recently published new guidance for transport operators, reminding them that all equality and discrimination law continues to apply, and that they have a duty to ensure that passengers with disabilities, including those with sight loss, are able to access the transport network.
The guidance makes clear that transport operators must support individuals to ensure they are able to adhere to social distancing, and that guidance should be provided for workers assisting people with disabilities. Information should also be provided for disabled passengers on how they can continue to access transport in a safe way. Operators should publish details about provision for disabled passengers, and they should note any changes to assistance services.
I would also expect passengers using public transport to be considerate towards those with disabilities who may require a seat or more space around them. I also commend the guidance put together by Guide Dogs for the Blind and I would be happy to draw it to the attention of local transport operators.
On the recommendation of the independent Oakervee Review commissioned last year, the Prime Minister has given the go ahead to HS2, alongside major improvements to local transport networks up and down the country.
HS2 will play an important role in the UK’s transition to a net-zero carbon economy by 2050. I understand that HS2 will offer some of the lowest carbon emissions per passenger mile, seven times less than passenger cars and 17 times less than domestic air travel in 2030. HS2 is also expected to help reduce the number of cars and lorries on the road and cut demand for domestic flights.
It is estimated that the total carbon emissions produced by both constructing and operating Phase One for 120 years would be the same as just one month of the UK's road network.
HS2 was also the first major transport infrastructure project in the UK to commit to the achieving ‘no net loss’ in biodiversity.
I am pleased that a green corridor will be created alongside the railway. This will involve the planting of seven million new trees and shrubs, including over 40 native species, along the Phase One route from London to the West Midlands.
It is also welcome that an overall £70 million funding package has also been made available to enhance community facilities, improve access to the countryside, and help improve road and cycle safety in towns and villages along the HS2 Phase One route.
During this difficult time for the country, the Government recognises the extreme disruption the necessary actions are having on people’s lives, their businesses, their jobs and the nation’s economy. That is why it has produced a huge and unprecedented programme of support both for workers and for business, and it will continue do everything it can to ensure people can pay their bills, stay in their home and put food on their table.
I do not underestimate the difficulties currently facing the travel industry, and the Government is engaging with the package travel sector and consumer advocacy bodies to assess the impact of cancellations made in light of the Covid-19 outbreak. The Government has already taken a number of steps to ensure more support for businesses of all sizes, including those in the travel industry. This includes extending the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme until at least the end June, extending the Coronavirus Interruption Loan Scheme to support all small businesses affected by coronavirus and creating a new Coronavirus Large Business Interruption Loan Scheme to help bigger firms as well.
I hope that travel firms of all sizes are using the schemes available to get through this extremely challenging period as best as they can. The Government is making progress on rolling these out, with the loans issued so far already worth more than £1.1 billion. Approvals have doubled in a week and lenders are increasing the number of loans they are approving every day. It has also changed the scheme to make it quicker and easier for banks to get the loans out the door to businesses.
I know that Ministers are aware of the ABTA campaign and will take any measures deemed necessary to support the travel industry. I will continue to engage with the Government on this.
HS2 and the Environment
On the recommendation of the independent Oakervee review commissioned last year, the Prime Minister has given the go ahead to HS2, alongside major improvements to local transport networks up and down the country. I am in regular discussions with Ministers to make sure North Devon gets a fair share of the new investment in transport.
The Oakervee review considered HS2’s environmental impact in line with the Government’s ambitious legally binding target for the UK to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050. The review found on balance, taking into account both construction and operation, that HS2 appears likely to be close to carbon neutral, and that it could also encourage people to travel by rail instead of by car or flying.
I do also agree with the review’s recommendation that HS2 Ltd should continue to look for ways of being more carbon efficient, particularly in construction in the short-medium term. Moreover, I support the recommendation that HS2 Ltd should look to reduce its forecast greenhouse gas emissions for the construction and delivery of Phase 2.
A green corridor will be created alongside the railway, including the planting of seven million new trees and shrubs along the Phase One route from London to the West Midlands. This is on top of the extensive tree-planting programme the Government has already announced.
Railways should allow people to access education and highly skilled, well paid jobs, and of course enable them to socialise. I therefore welcome that the Government is taking action to bring about much needed change.
From 1st March, the Northern Rail franchise will be taken into public ownership and the Government will begin operating Northern services through the public-sector operator, the so-called operator of last resort (OLR). The franchise system is being reviewed by the Government and all options are being considered to ensure that the railways work for passengers.
The Government is determined to see tangible improvements for passengers and I understand that the Pacer replacement programme will continue. I have been very glad to see that from December 12th of last year, the Barnstaple to Exeter line has received new trains to replace the frankly inadequate, older carriages.
Rail is absolutely key to our economy and we need better rail links in the South West and for North Devon in particular. I have already had many meetings to see what the Government can do to improve our railways and to improve North Devon’s infrastructure more broadly.