Accessibility at NS

28 October 2022

Mariska Noorloos and Joost Nagtzaam, together with three other colleagues, form the team that focuses on accessibility within NS. Joost focuses on the operational level and Mariska sets out the guidelines at a strategic level. Together with their 'five', they work hard every day within NS for accessibility of public transport.

How did your accessibility team come about and why do you think it works so well?

Mariska Noorloos leaned against a glass wall in which her appearance can be seen in mirror image.

Mariska: 'I have been working on accessibility within NS since 2013. When I came in I naturally went to look at the world around us and then I saw that we still had a lot to do, because other parties were really doing better than us at that time. So it would be a good idea if NS also put more effort into this. And that led to me becoming the first full-time Accessibility Manager at NS.

The first two years I did both the internal and external aspects of accessibility, ie all contacts with ministries, with Europe and with interest groups. And then I started to do more externally and Joost and the rest of the team started to supervise and drive the developments around accessibility internally. I think we've been working that way for about three years now, and it actually works very well.'

With dark glasses, a short gray beard and a broad grin, Joost smiles at the camera

Joost: 'I think the strength of our quintet and of what we achieve in terms of accessibility is that we cover the whole field. Mariska at a strategic level and I more at an operational level. That is also very much about current events, what is happening today and what are we encountering. And how does that relate to what we have come up with in the strategy. But also about quickly solving incidents.'

Mariska: 'Yes, and we also know so much about each other that we can work continuously in one line. The entire team knows enough about each other's fields to be able to continue to monitor that integrality. And that's important, because the great thing, but also the difficult thing about a subject such as accessibility, is that it is made by the entire company.'

You work really diligently on this subject, what is your motivation?

Mariska: 'I always really enjoy working on things that are really need-to-have, the basics. For example, I find it more difficult to get up for WiFi on the train, which is of course more of a nice-to-have for many people. I always think: if you have a disability that you can't take with the train, then you just don't participate, so that is an important motivation for me. We really make the difference with accessibility. Joost often says that too. It is life changing whether or not you can take the train in your hometown. I like that to work for. 

And I always think of my old grandmother, she always said: you, grandchildren, are at the front of my thoughts. And that is of course what you want. That accessibility is at the forefront of people's minds and that they just automatically think about it when a new product is created or when a new service is developed, that it should also be accessible. That that becomes as clear as a stone and that you don't have to discuss it anymore.'

Have you already achieved that at NS?

Mariska: 'Well, we're not quite there yet. But I do think that because the five of us have our feelers in the company, at all kinds of different levels, we are very close to many things. So we can often raise our finger and say: have you already thought about accessibility? Or how are we going to do that for people with a visual, motor or auditory disability? 

Because we have been doing this for about six or seven years, habituation also occurs. There are more and more people who, for example, have already done three projects that included an accessibility aspect, they will certainly remember that themselves. 

In the start-up phase it helped that there were all kinds of obligations, so you couldn't say well, I don't feel like that or it all costs way too much money, but that we just agreed on things that we were also charged with. From there we were able to put pressure on it.'

Was it mainly the obligation from which NS started with accessibility?

Mariska: 'We are not tackling this because we have to, but because it fits in with NS's social role. Fortunately, this social role has also been recognized more and more in recent years. That does not alter the fact that there are also obligations, and that is also a good thing.

Actually, there are two main lines where our obligations lie. First of all, of course, the laws and regulations that apply to everyone. That is European legislation and regulations, but also national laws and regulations. And it is quite an art to understand that properly and then translate it in such a way that people with disabilities really benefit from it.

And the second is the HRN concession, the concession for the main rail network. This is a contract that NS has with the government that contains all kinds of agreements, in particular about things that the market does not regulate, ie things that generally do not have a normal business case. It also contains an accessibility section with a large number of agreements about what NS had to achieve. That concession came into effect in January 2015 and what was very exciting there in the first few years was to really work out together with interest groups and the Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management what those agreements actually mean in practice. 

An example: It may state that a train must have independent boarding for wheelchair users. But what exactly is that, how great, for example, the distance between train and platform may be and when are we satisfied? That took us a year to work out, also with all kinds of technicians.'

You have a lot of contact with interest groups, which represent very different target groups. How do you handle that?

Mariska: 'When I started in 2013, we had little idea who our stakeholders were. The advantage is that we have the LOCOV, the National Consultative Body for Consumers' Organizations OV. A whole mouth full. From the concession, it is an obligation that we consult with them and that is really a very broad forum. This includes the cyclists' union, the senior citizens' union, the student union and, of course, Rover – the traveler's organisation. And that includes the interest group for people with disabilities, Elke(in). That's where I started. That was also the logical first step and from there you see if you get a better view of a certain target group, that the interest organizations actually present themselves that are passionate about it and especially do something with it in the world of public transport. . Soon after, the Eye Associations came up.

What is really new in the last three years is that, in addition to the official interest groups, we are increasingly looking at the groups that present themselves, for example on social media. Such as 'We stand up' and the 'Ros xxxx foundation' (???). These are interest groups of a different caliber, a different nature. These are much more the people with disabilities who have organized themselves in small groups and often ad hoc. 

In the beginning, I think we spoke even more to the interest groups because we actually had to figure out together with them during all those concession agreements: If this is the concession agreement, does it actually benefit you and what should that look like? We have also crossed out agreements together and replaced them with other, better agreements. I thought that was really nice because you talked to each other to your heart's content. And then of course you really get to what it's about, that people can travel more easily by train because of the measures you take.'

The corona crisis has of course had a lot of impact on everyone, but also on public transport in the Netherlands. How did you experience that with regard to accessibility?

Joost: 'I think the great thing about these kinds of crisis situations is that it is a test of what you have devised in advance. Whether that works well. Are you able to hold on to the vision you have of it and do you keep in touch with the outside world about that vision? And you then translate that into measures that simply maintain equality. Because what do you have to do so that someone can continue to travel as independently as possible and only offer help where it is needed. I think that worked out well.'

Mariska: 'I totally agree with that and I'm very proud of that. Also because at one point we were one of the few countries where travel assistance was still offered. However, with a restrictive condition that a wheelchair or the person was no longer allowed to be touched.'

What would your advice, or approach, be to create an inclusive future for the next generation?

Mariska: 'That is a big question. In any case, I think that individualization will continue and that participation is therefore not optional. It must. I do not expect that solidarity will increase again in the next generation. I think that the basic level that is now being agreed for accessibility in public transport should simply be raised and become more concrete. This also prevents differences in implementation. That will really help because the bad thing about traveling in public transport is that it is always a chain journey, you always go from door to door and never from station to station or from bus stop to bus stop. So if one link is not right or has a lower accessibility level, you will not be able to join the entire journey at once.'

What would you advise companies looking to improve their accessibility, but might see a lot of bears on the road?

Mariska: 'I think it is very important to have one person who is integrally responsible for accessibility. NS is a large company, so there are five of us, but if you don't have at least one person who oversees the whole thing, I think it will remain a waste of work. With all good intentions, but that will never bring you what you want, namely that accessibility, will come to the front of the thought. So that would be my very first and most important tip.'

Joost: 'Exactly. And in addition, you just have to build up knowledge and expertise over time, together. So that you can not only operate in the entire field, but at some point you will also be seen as a center of knowledge and expertise. Where we first had to find out a lot ourselves, more and more people now come to find us and ask for advice. 

And I would especially gain knowledge from other companies. I am still learning from the accessibility field every day, it is really about collecting knowledge.'

Mariska: 'You can study environmental science or anything, but accessibility still isn't. But accessibility is really a profession and that is why it is so important to set up one or more people dedicated to it. Just to understand all the regulations that are coming from Europe is already quite a job, I think that is underestimated. It requires a lot of technical knowledge, for example about making a website accessible – how do you do that? About making a train accessible – what does that mean? It really is a profession, and if that were more recognized, I think that perhaps a specialist would be hired sooner.

And what we at NS are very proud of is that we have anchored this in our new strategy. This is called 'NS sustainably accessible to everyone'. At some point, your company really has to say: we really think it is so important that it also acquires a place in our strategy. And otherwise the water will continue to carry to the sea.'

Is there anything else you would like to say about this subject, about your work? Something we haven't covered yet?

Joost: 'I still think it's important to point out that we're not talking about people who are pathetic. But just about people who travel from A to B and need something extra for that.'

Mariska: 'And it is also true that almost all the measures we take from an accessibility perspective are also very nice for people without disabilities. So, for example, no more stairs when boarding the train, that's handy for everyone, especially if you're walking with a suitcase.'

What do you think of a product like scribit.pro?

Mariska: 'What I really like about it is that it describes the smell and color of life, so to speak. And I think that very often the charm is in the smell and color, that in a film how someone looks, for example, determines the atmosphere. 

Joost: 'I think it's a great application, it does make me think. Perhaps there is room for it within NS, but I would have to investigate that further.'