Rail replacement PSVAR long-term exemption calls grow

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The likely impact of mandating PSVAR compliance for vehicles used on rail replacement services has been exposed in responses from train operating companies (TOCs) to legal advice on the matter that was sourced by the Office for Rail and Road (ORR) last year.

The broad opinions from several TOCs, and from ORR, give further backing to the argument for a longer-term exemption from the Regulations for rail replacement work than the one-month period already announced by DfT.

ORR’s preliminary legal advice indicated that rail replacement falls under the scope of PSVAR. It will shortly publish its final legal advice on the subject.

Rail replacement PSVAR: Major implications

Many TOCs say that if PSVAR is mandated, their ability to provide enough capacity would be severely limited owing to poor availability of compliant coaches. Some believe that using buses instead does not represent an appropriate alternative.

They also highlight the possible consequences of reduced road transport provision, including the safety concerns that would be generated by increased crowding at stations.

TOCs’ franchise agreements do not oblige them to provide rail replacement services. At least one notes that even if compliant vehicles were provided, they may not be able to load wheelchair users due to infrastructure constraints at some stations.

Based on those responses and others, ORR has proposed several changes to its Accessible Travel Policy (ATP) guidance to TOCs relating to the provision of PSVAR compliant vehicles.

However, ORR notes that any alterations, if adopted, will not preclude DVSA from enforcing the requirement for PSVAR should it choose to do so. Failure to comply if no exemption certificate is held is a criminal offence for both the road vehicle operator and the TOC.

ORR says that it expects TOCs to “take appropriate steps to comply with PSVAR.” But if that is not possible, it advises them to discuss with DfT and DVSA “what… options or mitigations may be feasible in the short term in order to ensure compliance and remove the barriers that many people face when using rail replacement services.”

Insufficient capacity if enforced

Data gathered by ORR shows that “there are insufficient PSVAR compliant coaches at the current time.” The Confederation of Passenger Transport, in responding to ORR’s provisional legal advice, estimates that around 600 are available in the UK that are not occupied on scheduled work.

ORR also proposes to amend ATP guidance “to encourage and support the greater availability and use of PSVAR compliant vehicles on rail replacement services,” but it will not command their sole use by TOCs.

If ORR did mandate compliance, it says that the likely result would be a major reduction in provision of rail replacement, or cessation altogether in some cases. Nevertheless, it notes that the potential criminal implications of failing to comply should no longer-term exemption be granted may still lead to those positions.

The most significant proposal for coach operators calls for TOCs to establish a forum that includes DfT and suppliers of rail replacement services. That will “identify and manage the better availability and use of PSVAR compliant vehicles at times of high demand,” it says.

Data collected by ORR shows that for 12 months ending 17 August 2019, just 0.3% of the coaches used on rail replacement work were PSVAR compliant. 60% of all vehicles used on rail replacement during the same period were coaches. All but a tiny percentage of buses used complied.