Imagine for a moment that you are able-bodied and healthy person out for a walk and you encounter a major barrier on your trip. Luckily there is an impressive-looking new bridge nearby. You can access and walk over it easily, but when you get to the other side you find that it ends abruptly just before your destination. To finish the last part of your journey you have to scrabble down a rope ladder – and climb back up the same ladder to make the return trip.
This, or something very similar to it, is the situation which people with a disability face at 162 out of the 311 railway stations in NSW, according to a recent ABC news report. For anyone in a wheelchair stations without ramps or lifts are virtually inaccessible, but people with walking frames or sticks or those with prams and strollers can also find station stairs to be an insurmountable obstacle.
The situation in some sections of the rail network such as my local Blue Mountains line is even worse. Of the 21 stations on the line from Lapstone to Lithgow, only four have full wheelchair access – in other words, over 75% of the stations on this line are disabled-unfriendly.
For decades the railway line and the Great Western Highway which runs parallel to it for much of the way have been the main corridors of connection for the dozens of Mountains townships they pass through – but in many places they also act as major barriers, splitting towns in two. This problem has been exacerbated by the recently completed widening of the highway to dual carriageway all the way to Katoomba.
To overcome this divide (and to keep the highway traffic flowing with as few sets of traffic lights as possible) new pedestrian bridges have been connected to the existing and much older pedestrian bridges and underpasses at railway stations. It is obviously sensible to use the existing infrastructure in this way to provide safer pedestrian access to these stations and to the town centres often associated with them, but the new crossings also play an equally important practical and psychological role in linking the separated halves of these communities.
Linking them that is, for people without disabilities – and who are also unencumbered with prams, strollers or shopping trolleys. Most of the old pedestrian bridges over the railway were built without any form of wheelchair or other disabled access. The new road crossings have been built to modern disability access standards, usually with ramps, but in most cases these have not been retrofitted to the existing pedestrian rail crossings they link to. This has led to the strange structures I described above, bridges with expensive and extensive ramps on one side of the highway but with steep staircases on the other side of the railway, or with ramps at either end but no disabled access to the railway station platforms underneath them.
These are truly bridges to nowhere for the mobility-impaired. They really beg the question about how comprehensive and well-intended disability access policies and plans can produce these sorts of “solutions”, especially in an area like the Blue Mountains which has a larger percentage of people aged over 50 than the Sydney average.
It’s unclear whether this is a failure of coordination, a lack of funding or just sheer incompetence, but seven out of the 17 Mountains stations without disabled access have received this “treatment”. The mid-mountains (Linden to Bullaburra) is the worst-affected area; none of the five stations in this section have disabled access despite the fact that four of them have been connected to new disabled accessible pedestrian bridges (or in the case of Lawson, an underpass) over the highway (and to declare an interest I live in the mid-mountains).
Of these four stations, two (Hazelbrook and Lawson) at least have disabled access from one side of the combined divide of the railway and highway to the other, though none to the station platforms. The other two (Bullaburra and Woodford) don’t even have that. Disabled access has been provided at considerable cost from one side of the highway to the other and to the entrance of the station, but you have to be able to use the stairs both to reach the station platforms and to cross the railway lines. To make matters worse neither of the stations immediately east and west of this section, Faulconbridge and Wentworth Falls, have disabled access (though the latter is about to receive a disability access upgrade).
The highway widening is now substantially complete, so sadly the community has lost any opportunity to leverage better outcomes at these stations as part of the road upgrade. The legacy of these “half-built” crossings does however provide the potential to finish the job at a significantly reduced cost. This is because at some of these new stations the new highway overbridges mean that only one lift or ramp is now required to provide full accessibility. Some stations would require two lifts or ramps, but this is still cheaper to provide than the three lifts required at stations like Wentworth Falls. I’ll briefly discuss some examples in the mid-mountains.
- Hazelbrook is the seventh-busiest station on the Blue Mountains line (based on 2014 station barrier counts), the busiest in the mid-mountains and also is an express stop. The new pedestrian bridge over the highway at Hazelbrook links the shopping centre on the north side to an older pedestrian bridge over the station which is at road level on the south side. This (a former road bridge) provides an excellent connection between the two halves of the township for the mobility impaired but there are only stairs down to the platforms. The installation of a single lift from the overbridge to the platform would resolve the station’s access problems, though to compound the failure to provide access in the first place large concrete planter boxes and other examples of “beautification” are currently being added to the station overbridge just where the lift should go.
- Lawson is the tenth-busiest station overall and the second-busiest in the mid-mountains. Unusually, pedestrian access to the station was provided by an underpass instead of a bridge; this has ramps at either end, but stairs up to the platforms. As part of the highway upgrade the pedestrian subway was extended under the road to connect to the shops on the other side with ramps at either end, but nothing was done about the platform stairs. This means however that like Hazelbrook a single lift is all that is required to provide access.
- Woodford station has been the subject of a strong community campaign to have wheelchair access installed. Despite this, both it and Bullaburra station rank below Hazelbrook and Lawson based on station patronage. They have a further disadvantage however; although they have been provided with new accessible pedestrian bridges over the highway, both stations lack disabled access not only to the platforms but also across the railway line. If anything Bullaburra is in a worse position than Woodford as there is no alternative road or pedestrian crossing of the railway nearby. Both stations would require two lifts to provide full disabled access.
While there is an argument for the current plans to provide disabled access at Wentworth Falls station based on its passenger numbers, the lack of disability access in the mid-mountains combined with the comparatively low cost involved in providing a lift each at the two busiest stations in this section is a strong justification for both these stations to be upgraded. At the very least Hazelbrook station’s “unfinished” bridge to nowhere should be next on the list to be completed as an urgent priority with the provision of a lift to the platform.