The people who can't use Crossrail

London's major new transport project is inaccessible to thousands for a saving of just 0.2 per cent of its budget.

Crossrail – the new, £14.5bn rail line due to open in 2019 – has come under fire today for not being fully open to women. Seven of the stations, including four in London, have been designed with a sensor that means it will be physically impossible for anyone without a Y chromosome to cross the platform. Mechanisms to address the censors are available but bosses have no plans to implement them, leaving women without full access. 

Women’s groups are understandably outraged. 

“It’s simple discrimination,” said a spokesperson for Transport for All, the group set up to address the continual exclusion of women from the use of public transport. “It’s offensive that in this day and age a woman can’t gain full access to public transport. And all because of a characteristic a person can’t help that their body has. It just doesn’t make sense. How did the many people behind Crossrail think it was okay to plan a new, major public transport link that excluded a section of the public?”

There are rumours that several other stations will only be accessible to people with light skin due to further sensor problems on the platforms, but, other than platitudes during interviews, the Mayor’s office has failed to provide any concrete commitment to make the necessary changes.

Only joking! None of that’s happening at all, of course. Or rather, it’s only happening to disabled people. Seven of the stations for Crossrail will not have step-free access to platforms, meaning wheelchair users and other disabled people won’t be able to use them. So that’s fine, then. 

It’s not like anyone involved in Crossrail could predict that disabled people might need to get around or that, you know, they even existed. They’re often shut in their house and it’s easy to forget them. 

It’s not like there was a global sporting event that specifically highlighted the inclusion of disabled people, held exactly a year ago in the same city. Or that the accessibility of public transport was actually featured in the bid for that event.

Plus, it’s not as if Crossrail is a long-term or expensive project where these sort of issues had a chance to come up. Massive infrastructure improvements that cost almost £15bn worth of public money are typically designed and approved in one afternoon on the back of a Tube map. And no matter what the PC brigade say, you can definitely put a price on equality and a human being’s right to be part of society. Sure, when it comes to making Crossrail fully accessible that price is only 0.2 per cent of the total cost, but when it comes to public money, you have to be careful not to waste it. Other than building a vast, expensive new piece of public transport that isn’t suitable for some of the public, obviously. 

As Tanni Grey-Thompson told me for the New Statesman last week, no disabled person expects existing public transport to be perfect. But what’s Crossrail’s excuse? At this point, it’s just those in power actively excluding certain people from the transport everyone else uses, and as a consequence, mainstream society. But it’s only disabled people, right? They really should be used to it by now. 

Coinciding with a week of action by Disabled People Against Cuts, on Thursday 29th August Transport for All are leading a protest against the inaccessibility of Crossrail. You can lend your support here.

The Crossrail tunnel. Photograph: Getty Images

Frances Ryan is a journalist and political researcher. She writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman, and others on disability, feminism, and most areas of equality you throw at her. She has a doctorate in inequality in education. Her website is here.

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Theresa May's big thinker - an interview with George Freeman

The Conservative policy board chair on the meaning of Brexit, state intervention and whether "Mayism" exists.

Theresa May’s three months as Prime Minister have been marked by ruthless changes of both personnel and policy, from grammar schools to fiscal targets. The man tasked with overseeing the latter is George Freeman, a newly bearded 49-year-old who jokingly describes himself as “a designated thinker”.

“It’s a huge privilege,” Freeman told me when we met recently in Westminster. “As [May] has indicated, she’s determined to open up the policymaking process to good ideas from a much wider pool.”

After entering parliament as the MP for Mid Norfolk in 2010, Freeman distinguished himself as one of the most intellectually energetic Tory MPs. He founded the 2020 group of Conservative modernisers and became the first ever life sciences minister in 2014. Before this, he had worked for 15 years as a biotech entrepreneur.

Politics is in his blood. The Liberal prime minister William Gladstone was his great-great-great-uncle and Mabel Philipson, the first female Conservative MP, his great-aunt. Yet Freeman attributes his reformist zeal to the belief that “with privilege comes responsibility”. He boarded at Radley College after his parents, both alcoholics, divorced and has spoken of his “emotionally damaged” childhood.

It is unsurprising that May, confronted by the greatest policy challenge since 1945 – EU withdrawal – has called on his services. The chair of the Prime Minister’s policy board, to give Freeman his official title, was a passionate Remainer but told me “we are now all Brexiteers”. The “Brexit roar”, he explained, was “a mixture of very deeply felt concerns and complaints about globalisation, powerlessness and the growing gap between London and [other] places . . .

“There’s an understanding that if we simply delivered Brexit, and didn’t tackle the rest, we would only have dealt with some of the problem.”

His ambition was “to do for our generation what Disraeli did in the 19th century, in understanding that the extraordinarily challenging pace of franchise extension was also a huge opportunity to harness and fashion a New Model Conservative Party”.

Besides abandoning the surplus target (“to boost growth and investment in infrastructure”), Freeman cited welfare policy as a point of departure. The government would “better differentiate” between changes in the welfare budget and systemic reform – a division that May believes was eroded by George Osborne.

The Prime Minister underlined her commitment to industrial strategy by naming a new department after it. But what does it mean? “I think there is a recognition that we are embracing something unrecognisable from the failed ‘beer and sandwiches’ interventionism of the Sixties and Seventies,” Freeman said. “Twenty-first-century Conservative industrial strategy is about backing our science, innovation and knowledge economy, and other sectors where we have serious global leadership.” He spoke of “stepping in where only the state can”, citing the publicly funded Diamond Light Source synchrotron facility, which he recently visited with the astronaut Tim Peake. The government must be not merely “pro-enterprise”, but “more enterprising”.

May has endured her heaviest dissent over education, and Freeman was notably lukewarm about the idea of new grammar schools. “As well as her position” on the latter, he emphasised, “the Prime Minister set out a much broader vision”. Asked whether he understood MPs’ objections to academic selection, he said “there will be all the usual consultation and discussions through parliament about specific measures”.

The Prime Minister has entered office with greater ideological definition to her thinking than David Cameron, who struggled to reconcile his early vision with austerity. Can we speak of “Mayism”? “I’m not sure the ‘ism’ is helpful or appropriate at this stage. The Prime Minister is very strongly driven by her conservative values, and converting those values into effective policies to tackle the challenges we face. I think we have to wait for the judgement of history to define the ism.”

Freeman is close to “DC” (as he calls Cameron) and praised his premiership. “I was very sorry to see him go. But in the end, given the way the referendum turned out, it was inevitable. I thought he handled that whole last week in the most exemplary way: typical of the man. In time, I think he will come to be recognised as a transformational leader who brought the Conservative Party to terms with modern Britain.”

He rejected the former education secretary Nicky Morgan’s suggestion that May would struggle to “reach into” the marginal seats that the Tories won under Cameron. “Theresa May is appealing widely across whole swaths of the country as a One-Nation leader,” he declared.

With the re-election of Jeremy Corbyn, Freeman said, “the centre ground of British politics, once dominated by Blair and New Labour, has been vacated . . . That is a huge opportunity for a One-Nation Conservative Party to demonstrate our relevance beyond our core vote to those around the country who have clearly felt so marginalised.”

Corbyn’s triumph “illustrates the extraordinary challenge for mainstream political parties in this age of asymmetric, post-Brexit politics . . . We now have to use the opportunity of incumbency in government to tackle the root causes of the insurgency that has taken out the Labour Party.”

Freeman acknowledged the risk that Labour’s divisions would produce an internal Tory opposition.

“It also creates a question for the Conservative Party. Will we turn in on ourselves and generate our own arguments, or unite and reach out into the space that Corbyn has vacated?” 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories