Access For All: Interview with Northern’s Matthew Wilson
For Global Railway Review’s ‘Access For All’ interview series, Matthew Wilson, Travel Integration and Accessibility Manager at Northern, explains the importance of accessibility for Northern, detailing the ways that Northern try to improve the passenger experience.
What is Northern’s mission statement when it comes to accessibility?
Accessibility for All has been a pillar of our business planning process for the last three years and has delivered a step-change in how we view accessibility in the business, but clearly this is quite a general title and doesn’t necessarily inspire improvement all by itself.
We have recently put a greater focus on Northern having an ‘Accessibility Mindset’ – by that I mean that we are working to embrace some key visions in everything we do; ‘Nothing about us, without us’ and ‘Design with empathy’ being two of these (borrowed from others but used with positive intent!). We are working to spread that message all around our 7,000+ people-strong business. I know things can still go wrong out there on the network, and not everyone’s experience is as good as it should be, but if we bring the right mindset to what we do, we will ensure that we ultimately make good progress.
Do you think the rail industry as a whole is doing enough to ensure rail travel is accessible for all?
When only 40% of the network is truly accessible it can be hard to answer a question like this positively – clearly there is a long road ahead to get to a truly accessible rail network. We should only really be happy with our progress when our customers tell us they are happy. However, I can now say that we have a fantastic community of accessibility leads within operators around the country, all passionate about making improvements, and all sharing good practice. This did not exist at the start of my career.
We also have many customer-facing teams who deliver a great service every day. So, some of the foundations are there – we just need to ensure that we can deliver consistently and embrace every opportunity to enhance our service when we can.
More and more, we have started to properly engage with disabled people to ensure we work in an informed and appropriate way – again not something that was generally done at the start of my career – and as long as we maintain this vital approach we will be going in the right direction, even if it feels like progress is sometime slower than we would all like.
What onboard amenities/facilities do Northern trains offer to ensure people with disabilities have a comfortable journey?
We have a large and varied fleet, but all services have a conductor onboard, so there is always a member of staff available to provide assistance on the train. Each Northern unit has two dedicated wheelchair/mobility scooter spaces and at least one accessible toilet. We introduced both new trains and a major internal refurbishment of older fleets a few years ago and recently completed our ‘Digital Trains’ programme which covered our entire fleet. This introduced improved Passenger Information Screens, Wi-Fi and high-definition CCTV covering the whole train.
How does Northern support individuals with disabilities to enhance their station navigation experience?
We recently launched a trial of new dementia-friendly signage at Buxton station, which we are currently assessing before a potential roll out to more stations. These signs use less words, more graphic elements, and a different colour scheme to most rail signage. In addition, we have 360-degree photographic mapping of every station on our website – allowing people to review station layouts and their planned route before travel.
We are also currently introducing wayfinding such as tactile wayfinding on handrails and braille station maps for the visually impaired.
Is website accessibility important?
Absolutely! We have been working with the Shaw Trust to improve the accessibility of our website, making many enhancements during the collaboration, and have recently launched Northern’s Accessibility Hub section of the site which includes enhancements such as British Sign Language (BSL) translations of our Accessible Travel Policy. I have a great relationship with our excellent marketing team and am always reassured that they take web accessibility extremely seriously. Clearly not everyone uses the digital route to interact with us, but for those that do we are working extremely hard to ensure a consistent, positive experience.
How does Northern ensure its staff are trained to provide assistance to people with disabilities?
We train our teams regarding the importance of an accessible service at multiple points, from our dedicated one-day Disability Awareness training course delivered in partnership with Enhance the UK, whose trainers all have lived experience of travelling with a disability, to a comprehensive eLearning package used to provide a refresher of previous learning for our customer-facing teams.
Our Customer Service training package contains elements on disability awareness, and we are currently adapting our enhance training for a senior management audience to provide the greatest level of consistency in understanding across the business. We often use videos made especially for our sessions in which disabled people take us through their experiences of travel on our network. These videos are powerful and informative. We will shortly be launching an informative podcast regarding accessibility which will be hosted by my proud Evertonian colleague Mark Wilson OBE.
How can people with disabilities provide feedback to Northern and how is this information taken forward to improve accessibility?
There are multiple ways to contact us, starting with our Customer Service Centre in Sheffield. Details can be found on our website and in our Accessible Travel Policy. We issue post-travel surveys to customers asking for feedback where people can address delivery of any booked assistance they requested, including the booking process itself. All data is reviewed by our insights team, whose analysis helps us aim improvement actions at the places where it is most needed. I read a lot of the feedback myself, it is a great motivator.
We have a Northern Accessibility User Group which is wonderful to work with and a vital resource for us in our journey towards improved accessibility – we do need a better geographical spread in our membership though, with Yorkshire and the North East being slightly underrepresented – so anyone interested in joining the group and helping us please get in touch with me!
How does Northern collaborate with disability advocacy groups to improve accessibility for people with disabilities?
This is an area I would like to enhance in the coming months – we have great relationships with some groups, such as the Research Institute for Disabled Consumers who work with us on our Mystery Shopping activities, and I can see the benefits of having a much wider network of expertise to collaborate with in the future. We pride ourselves on our collaborative relationships as a community-minded company, so I am keen that this extends fully into the accessibility space.
To what extent do you think that more needs to be done at a government level to ensure trains and stations become even more accessible?
There is no doubt that serious funding is required – it will clearly cost a significant amount to make the remaining 60% of stations fully accessible, and level-boarding must be our aspiration for future rolling stock, however difficult that may seem in some locations.
As Accessibility Lead at Northern I can deliver all sorts of regional-scale, innovative schemes that help the pockets of customers, but there needs to be a step-change in funding to reach that big end goal of being truly Accessible for All.
We also need to make sure that disabled people are genuinely consulted when the government makes decisions related to the accessibility of transport. Disabled people know the most about what can and won’t improve their experiences when travelling.
Is Northern currently trialling/developing any new accessibility initiatives?
Always! As previously mentioned, there is the dementia friendly signage at Buxton. We also have six schemes being funded this year via our Accessibility Innovation Scheme, a £250k fund available to public bids which are then judged by our Accessibility User Group. These include a mobility scooter hire scheme at Meadowhall and BSL signage at Manchester Victoria.
We will also be doing additional work with our partners at Community Rail Lancashire who deliver the wonderful Try the Train programme which has already supported 300 people this year. The programme provides people who do not have the confidence to travel by train a structured classroom and on-train based course which helps them navigate the network and ticketing etc, the result being that at the end of the seven sessions provided, attendees are comfortable making journeys independently from the course.
Our award-winning VR app, which offers people a virtual experience of a train journey to provide confidence to neurodiverse customers among others, is now being further developed to become a training tool for our staff.
Finally, a recent highlight has been the introduction of accessible toilet pods at stations which previously had no toilets, and upgrades of facilities where they did. Being able to use a clean, secure and accessible loo should be a minimum service requirement and so I am pleased to say we will be installing many more this year and beyond.
How does Northern plan to ensure that all customers feel confident while traveling with them in the future?
We are currently working on a roll out of the Transreport Passenger Assist app in the business that will provide a much greater level of consistency in our delivery of assistance.
We get some great feedback from customers regarding our staff when assistance is delivered – the Office of Rail and Road’s (ORR) data on assistance for 2021/2022 put satisfaction with the helpfulness of our teams providing the assistance at 94% – but we know there is less consistency in the actual delivery. This is a symptom of a very large and varied network, with many stations unstaffed and a lot staffed part-time, but it doesn’t have to be that way and the app should help us deliver a big improvement in this area in 2023/2024.
Use of the app will also provide a big increase in our data around passenger assistance, which will help to ensure we can match staffing levels with assistance needs at our bigger stations.
On a personal note, I take my responsibilities as accessibility lead at Northern very seriously and can assure customers and potential customers that my team work tirelessly to deliver improvements across the business. We are always open to collaboration, feedback and support wherever people want to reach out.
Have you seen the other exclusive interviews from Global Railway Review with rail accessibility experts?
- Catherine Langlois, Senior Advisor – Universal Accessibility, VIA Rail – READ NOW!
- Chris Jeffery, Accessibility & Transport Integration Manager, TransPennine Express – READ NOW!
- Ronan Murphy, Head of Customer Care and Accessibility, Irish Rail – READ NOW!
- Franz Andel, Accessibility Manager at ÖBB-Personenverkehr – READ NOW!
- Sophie Court, Accessibility Improvement Manager at Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR) – READ NOW!
- Linas Baužys, CEO at LTG Link – READ NOW!
There will be other interviews over the coming weeks; participants will include DSB, ProRail, Avanti West Coast, and many more!
If you would like to take part in the Access For All series, or would like to nominate a colleague, please email: Elizabeth Jordan, Editor, Global Railway Review.