The head of a disabled passengers campaign group has quit in protest at ScotRail’s “highly inappropriate” overhaul of its trains on the scenic West Highland Line.
Scottish Accessible Transport Alliance (SATA) chair Arthur Cowie has resigned because he claimed the upgrade had made the accessibility of the carriages “even worse”.
He said the changes had been “the straw that finally broke the camel’s back” after decades of trying to win improvements for disabled travellers. Cowie said the refurbishment had made it more difficult for passengers with mobility problems to board, manoeuvre their wheelchairs and use toilets on the Glasgow to Oban and Mallaig route.
It is ScotRail’s longest route, with journeys taking up to five-and-a-half hours. The trains also operate on lines around Glasgow and to Dumfries and Stranraer.
Cowie told Scotland on Sunday: “The old rolling stock was not accessible before the refurbishment. Somehow they have taken a very poor accessibility situation and made it even worse, which I never imagined possible.”
ScotRail insisted the overhaul of the class 156 trains would “improve the on-train experience”.
However, Cowie said: “Heaven help the travelling public if they think this refurbishment will do that.
“These refurbished units are a major step backwards and have adversely affected travelling conditions, making these carriages almost inaccessible to elderly and disabled passengers.”
Cowie said buttons to open doors were one third their previous size, posing problems for people with sight or arm problems.
He welcomed the addition of a second wheelchair space, but said in only one of them could the passenger face a travelling companion, and manoeuvring space was constricted by other seats.
Cowie said moving the toilet bowl made it difficult for wheelchair passengers, and the toilet door operating instructions were too small for the visually impaired.
He described new seating as “very uncomfortable” for elderly passengers and those with back problems and arthritis.
Cowie said space between seats and tables had also been reduced, causing problems for larger passengers.
He said ScotRail’s boast to be creating “the best railway Scotland has ever had” had “proved to be totally false with the introduction of these highly inappropriate refurbished carriages”.
Cowie said of his decision to step down: “Recent actions by ScotRail and [Scottish Government agency] Transport Scotland have made me realise I have been wasting my time over the last 40 years in trying to achieve accessible travel, and have been played for a fool by the transport authorities over this period.”
SATA acting chair Terry Barlow said: “I fully agree with everything Arthur says.”
A ScotRail spokesman said: “These trains are fully compliant with accessibility legislation, are more suited to scenic routes with the seats aligned to windows, and have increased toilet and luggage space.”
The train operator added that “accessibility was one of the main driving factors for the refurbishment of the fleet, and improving accessibility was at the forefront of the design specifications”.
It said the seats were now closer together to create more space to allow wheelchair access to the new accessible toilets and to create space for two wheelchair areas.
A Transport Scotland spokesman said: “Transport accessibility is a key priority and we take stakeholder feedback into account when making improvements while also remaining compliant with the relevant legislation and standards. This fleet of trains has been refurbished to a high specification and will bring benefits to a wide range of users.”