The question of how PSVAR will be satisfied on rail replacement services rumbles on. Minister of State for Transport Chris Heaton-Harris expects the rail industry to deliver a pathway to compliance. But how that will be achieved remains a mystery.
In a letter to the Rail Delivery Group (RDG) – the rail industry’s trade body – the Minister made it clear that he views PSVAR as its problem to solve. It is not for coach operators to deal with, although they will naturally be involved in any work that may deliver what the Minister is demanding.
That puts rail replacement service providers in a difficult position. Among them is Abellio. The Dutch group holds several rail franchises and it also administers a good chunk of the UK’s rail replacement work.
The current exemption from PSVAR on rail replacement expires on 30 April. Availability of compliant coaches, lead times for new vehicles and the rate at which conversions can be undertaken mean that there is likely to have been little change to the status quo by then.
Is rail replacement PSVAR an impossible problem?
That leaves service providers with only one avenue, says Abellio Rail Replacement (ARR) Business Support Manager Paul O’Bentley: Seek another exemption.
“For us, PSVAR is an ARR problem but it is also a railway problem. It is not long until the current exemption expires. The rail industry, via the RDG, will be going back to the Minister and making further representations.”
ARR accepts that, unlike home to school work, coach operators view rail replacement as jam on the cake. Some may divorce themselves from it entirely if full PSVAR compliance is mandated.
Because of that, the need for a realistic dialogue about how things move forwards is obvious. Whether there will be compromise is unknown. But it is fact that there are insufficient compliant coaches to satisfy demand, and the rail industry’s appetite for moving towards buses is minimal.
ARR will soon launch an online questionnaire that will not be limited in scope to its suppliers. It will attempt to start a discussion on where rail replacement goes in the future. Talks will include key stakeholders.
It does not expect to settle on a solution easily. If one existed, it would have been found by now.
Presenting a plan to government
Views generated by this process will be used as part of a plan presented to Chris Heaton-Harris.
ARR sees its consultation process with suppliers as giving them a voice; it does not plan to propose a concrete solution to the government.
It is important that coach operators take the opportunity to have their say.
ARR has swapped some work to buses under what Paul calls “the right circumstances,” but he adds that there will be no wholesale shift across the board. Coaches remain favoured under most circumstances.
ARR is mindful of operators that have invested to satisfy PSVAR. Paul takes their collective point that they have been treated shabbily via the various exemptions. But he also notes that the government has ensured that they are still favoured.
“We are required to always seek PSVAR compliant vehicles first. That gives suppliers that have them some degree of certainty,” he says. Only after that supply has been exhausted are non-PSVAR coaches with exemption certificates sourced.
What has already been raised with ARR by more than one of its suppliers is the discrepancy between the number of wheelchair user spaces on some trains and what is called for by PSVAR on replacement road vehicles.
An 11-carriage train may have three spaces for wheelchair users. That does not correlate with Chris Heaton-Harris’s view that all replacement road vehicles should eventually be PSVAR compliant. Raising points such as that is important as part of the coming discussion process, says Paul.
‘Constructive dialogue’ is necessary
“Our job now is to articulate those opinions. They must go into the discussion. Dialogue will centre on what the coach industry can offer that is within the spirit of the Regulations.
“What we cannot bring is a list of reasons why PSVAR is impossible. Instead, it is incumbent on the coach industry to outline what it can do.
“We have to look forward and at what is achievable, although we acknowledge that for now, that is hard. The focus must be on what is doable. Suggestions are welcome.”
Chris Heaton-Harris’ decree that PSVAR must be achieved on all rail replacement vehicles may sound incredibly naive. But he has made clear that is what he expects in the fullness of time.
The tone of his letters, and the suggestion of a Judicial Review into exemptions brought by wheelchair users’ lobby groups, make it clear that there is only one way forward: A road to compliance.
What that compliance looks like under those circumstances is unclear. It remains to be seen whether the Minister will put forward realistic ideas of his own that will help to achieve his goal.
Through rail replacement providers, the coach industry now has its chance to have a say in the process of bringing about a satisfactory conclusion to one of the most absurd episodes in its recent history.