Bridging the gap: Rail station path demo gathers steam

DEMONSTATORS descended on Sheffield rail station yesterday as the campaign to keep open a through route for pedestrians gathered steam.

Members of all parties at the Town Hall joined forces with community groups to challenge East Midlands Trains' strategy of trying to stop anybody without a ticket from going into the station.

READ MORE:Ticket machine targeting 'free' rail trips to city

The protest was held as hopes emerged of a solution to the long-running dispute. Sheffield Central MP Richard Caborn said he hoped to see a feasibility study drawn up into extending and restoring a service footbridge in the station, currently used only by staff and without access to platforms, so that it could be used by the public.

The aim would be to allow the train company to install the ticket barriers it wants to deter fare dodgers - and for pedestrians without tickets to use the station to cross between the city centre, the Supertram stop and Park Hill and Norfolk Park.

At present, when ticket inspectors prevent them going into the station, they are having to use a rundown, graffiti strewn footbridge off Cross Turner Street.

Mr Caborn said he had spoken to Transport Minister Lord Adonis and Brian Souter, chief executive of Stagecoach, which owns EMT and Supertram, about trying to find a way forward.

The train company did not comment directly yesterday on the suggestion of a feasibility study, but said it would be "happy to hear of any extra measures that the Department for Transport, Sheffield City Council or other relevant agencies would like to put forward to further improve accessibility through the station for people in Sheffield".

The strength of opposition to the 'ban' on pedestrians was evident yesterday as more than 100 demonstrators turned up at the station, prepared, if necessary, to confront ticket inspectors.

In the event, they were allowed to walk, unchallenged, along the footbridge.

Chanting protestors included representatives of the Liberal Democrats, Labour, Greens and members of RASC, Residents Against Station Closure.

Critics say the station and its surroundings have been restored at a cost to the public of around 50m, and it should not be shut off as a direct and safe pedestrian link between the city centre and the Supertram stop, homes and regeneration projects such as the one at Park Hill.

Geraldine Roberts, who chairs RASC, welcomed the idea of a feasibility study into opening up another footbridge, but said EMT "must stop the arbitrary footbridge closure in the meantime".

She added that she did not have confidence in the company so far, accusing it of being "combative" and "arrogant".

Liberal Democrat council leader Paul Scriven urged the Government to intervene, saying he was "appalled" that he had not even had an acknowledgement to an email sent one-and-a-half weeks ago to Transport Secretary Geoff Hoon.

Coun Scriven rejected EMT's plans for electronic passes for non-ticket holders once automated gates are installed.

"EMT have come up with a fudge, not a solution. It would be a bureaucratic nightmare, with people who walk through the station having to apply for a pass.

East Midlands Trains has suggested that "legitimate users" of the station footbridge could be given a free electronic pass that would open the proposed automatic gates and allow them free access across the footbridge.

In the meantime, without automated ticket barriers, staff have been manually checking tickets at peak times – either in the morning or in the evening – over the past two weeks.

It says it has prevented hundreds of people trying to get on trains without a valid ticket.

The company maintains that tram passengers, people with mobility difficulties and parents with young children in pushchairs, as well as train passengers with a valid ticket, can continue to use the main footbridge.

An East Midlands Trains spokesperson said yesterday: "It has always been our intention to offer residents unhindered access across the footbridge through the use of a free pass once permanent automatic ticket gates are in place. Our announcement last week re-iterated that intention.

"As a company, we have always tried to listen to the views of the residents, whilst being mindful of our need to stamp out ticketless travel.

"As we announced last week, we will be pressing ahead with our plans to submit a planning application to Sheffield City Council for the installation of the automatic ticket gates.

"In the meantime, we will be continuing with our rolling programme of ticket checks which have been extremely successful.

"In addition to the automatic ticket gates being funded by East Midlands Trains, we would be happy to hear of any extra measures that the Department for Transport, Sheffield City Council or other relevant agencies would like to put forward to further improve accessibility through the station for people in Sheffield."

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And what about people who only walk through the station occasionally? It still means our city would be cut into two.”

But Mr Caborn, whose constituency includes the station, believes a feasibility study could pave the way for a solution that satisfies everybody.

The suggested public footbridge, using an existing ‘goods bridge’ would have a lift, be well lit, be covered by CCTV and would be open 24 hours a day, unlike the other footbridge through the station, he said.

Mr Caborn expected the cost of the feasibility study to met by the Government and EMT and, if the new route materialised, for a similar agreement to be reached over the cost of the new footbridge, which he estimated at around 1.5m.

“We are trying to find a solution that is acceptable to everybody. I have spoken to Brian Souter and he said they want to find a solution.”