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Are customers short-changed by public inconvenience?

Inadequate toilet provision could undermine rail’s inclusivity.

Rhodri Clark
14 October 2019

Millions of pounds have been invested in making Britain’s railways more accessible to all, but is the effort being undermined by the general availability of toilets for passengers? 

Passengers on ‘stopping’ services between Reading and London are accustomed to trains with toilets, and Great Western Railway’s new Class 387 electric trains recently gave them an improvement in toilet facilities. However, the services will transfer from GWR to Crossrail in December in preparation for Crossrail’s full opening, and Crossrail’s Class 345 trains have no toilets.

Transport for London (TfL) argues that toilets are unnecessary because the average journey length on Crossrail will be 20 minutes. This reflects the large number of short-hop journeys between stations in the central core, but some services will begin from as far away as Shenfield and Reading. The 20-minute average journey may appear irrelevant to passengers needing the toilet on a 53-minute journey from Twyford to Farringdon or during the 83-minute trip from Shenfield to Heathrow.

The topic has also aroused debate in Wales since it emerged that old trains with toilets will be replaced in 2022 with toilet-less rolling stock for journeys including Treherbert to Cardiff, which takes more than an hour on the current trains. Transport for Wales (TfW) pledged to improve station toilets along those routes. With each line having a 15-minute daytime service frequency, passengers will be expected to alight if they need the toilet and catch the next onward service. TfW also suggested that last trains would have a scheduled toilet stop.

Toilet-less trains

Some of Britain’s toilet-less new trains replace rolling stock, which was also without toilets. Does this provide adequate future proofing, given that new trains are intended to operate for at least 30 years? It is forecast that about one in four of the UK’s population will be over 65 by 2050. If recent trends continue, older people will live independently until later in life. Even for those who do not develop bowel or bladder conditions, the ageing process means more frequent visits to the toilet.

Caroline Abrahams, Age UK’s charity director, comments: “Having easy access to well-maintained toilets when you are out and about is important to most of us but especially for many older people, often due to medical reasons.

“With a growing ageing population, we need more decent public toilets, not fewer, including on trains and at railway stations. If these become ‘toilet free zones’, then this will be enough to put off some older people from travelling at all, and that’s bad news for them and for the railway companies too.”

Transport providers must cater for older people’s needs, she says. “In any case, there are many people of all ages for whom knowing there will be a decent toilet if they need it really matters – among them, families with young children.” 

Merseyrail carried out research with a panel of residents before procuring its new trains. It found that demand for toilets was “very low”, with panel members according higher priority to air conditioning, free wi-fi and level access for wheelchair users, bikes and buggies.

Omitting toilets will enable its new trains to carry more passengers, and passengers’ average journey time is only 20 minutes, says Merseyrail. However, journey time by Merseyrail from Chester to Liverpool Central is 50 minutes.

In TfW’s case, the decision to dispense with on-train toilets arises from the choice of tram-train for three of the main Valley Lines, allowing for future on-street route extensions. The same issues may arise in other areas where trains with toilets are replaced by tram-trains. The technology is proposed in Greater Manchester’s new rail masterplan, for example (LTT 29 Sep).

Responding to criticism last month, Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford explained: “Transport for Wales has looked everywhere around the globe to see if it is possible to procure new tram-trains that have toilet facilities on them.

“If you are driving a tram-train, for safety reasons the driver has to be able to have unimpeded sight lines from where he is driving the train right to the back of it.”

Drakeford said trams in other cities, such as Edinburgh, have no toilets. “I stood for 40 minutes yesterday on the Underground in London with millions of other people and there are no toilet facilities there either.” 

The Underground comparison does not impress Campaign for Better Transport chief executive Darren Shirley. “You don’t want to get caught short on the Underground – finding a toilet is a nightmare,” he says.

“It comes down to the station facilities being inadequate.” Where station toilets are provided for rail passengers, they are often locked or in a disgusting state, he believes. “If they’re removing toilets from trains, what are they doing to ensure there’s adequate facilities at the stations?”

Network Rail recently abolished toilet admission charges at 20 of Britain’s busiest stations. At the other end of the scale, toilets are generally absent from unstaffed stations and are locked at many stations when the staff finish for the day, around lunchtime in some cases.

Many rail users have anecdotes about journeys where at least one of the toilets on a train was out of order. Where no working toilets are available, the conductor may arrange an extended station stop for passengers to use the facilities. This is not without its pitfalls. Poor communication at Carmarthen in September 2018 resulted in a train leaving while passengers were still in the toilets, having left their possessions on the train.

Problems can also arise when trains with no available toilets are delayed. After a power shortage stopped many trains in London and nearby in August, one passenger told the BBC he was stuck for almost six hours on a train where all toilets were locked.

When Shirley travelled from London to Bournemouth for the Liberal Democrat conference last month, he sat near a very elderly woman who had booked a seat next to the toilet and assistance with boarding. The toilet was out of order because the door was faulty.

“The other toilet was at the other end of the train. The poor woman had to go one and a half hours without the toilet. She couldn’t walk through the train because it was swaying and rocking. She couldn’t keep her balance with her sticks and hold on to something to keep herself secure.”

‘Out of order’ loos

The tale reflects the relative sophistication of train toilets since the days when the doors were hinged and waste flushed directly onto the track. Modern toilets with power doors, vacuum flushing and waste retention tanks provide many benefits for users, track maintenance workers and the environment, but the price is gadgetry which can fail during the operating day and possibly be too complex for repair during routine overnight servicing away from main depots.

In the twice-yearly National Rail Passenger Survey, Passenger Focus asks respondents to rate toilets. Regarding station toilets, in the latest survey 46% of respondents ticked “satisfied or good”, 35% “dissatisfied or poor” and 19% “neither/nor”. The percentages were almost identical when asked about on-train toilets. 

Many respondents gave no opinion. The overall sample size was 30,119, but only 11,901 and 15,997 answered the questions about on-train toilets and station toilets respectively. This may suggest that many passengers do not use toilets on trains or at stations, and therefore have no opinion on those facilities.

Shirley comments: “Passenger Focus only surveys passengers, not those who are no longer passengers or don’t use the service because it’s not working for them. There’s a significant gap in that level of understanding.

“If you start researching what a parent with a young child thinks, or a person with IBS [irritable bowel syndrome] or incontinence, or an elderly person, it would provide the broader picture of the design of the rolling stock and stations.”  

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