My Speech at Today’s Inclusive Transport Parliamentary Reception

I’m Chair of Transport for All and here today as the co-Chair of the Inclusive Transport Stakeholder Group.

So, this is my maiden speech in Parliament which, to be honest, is the closest I want to get to being an MP. The whole news cycle is obsessed with Brexit, and our MPs are being criticized for failing to achieve it or indeed anything else. But as we’ve heard this is very far from the truth.

The Inclusive Transport Strategy comes at the end of a period of huge change. The past 30 years has seen Disabled and Older People fight against Government and Transport providers for their right to access public transport. This fight has, in the past, met with resistance but this has now largely changed. We’re pushing at an open door. Everyone accepts that accessibility, that inclusivity benefits all passengers and society at large.

As a direct result of this fight we have accessible buses. Traveling by train no longer means in the guard’s van. Decades of pressure means that today the industry is being much more proactive. Across the country, in all modes, there are great examples of good practice, some of whom are represented here today.

Yet we still have inconsistency. Every day there continue to be individual stories of the challenge disabled people face when trying to use public transport. On last night’s news we heard of one wheelchair user being refused access to a bus. Last weekend a guide dog user was refused access to a taxi, for the 4th time this year, despite the provisions in the Equality Act being enacted. These incidents remain disappointingly common.

This is the landscape that the Inclusive Transport Strategy is in.

For the first time the Strategy sets out  a consistent approach across modes. It sets expectations for both passengers and providers. It makes clear that Disabled People themselves should be involved in the design and delivery of services. It provides the mechanisms to monitor progress towards its goals, a key function of the Strategy Group.

Out of this strategy will come solid action plans from Government, from sectors and from individual operators. The strategy will mean that these plans are aligned. It will mean that passengers know what to expect and can hold service providers to account. It will mean that good practice is more easily identified and can be shared. Accessibility should not be considered some element of competitive advantage. These good practice initiatives must not be some guarded secret but must be widely adopted.

The strategy represents a line in the sand. A point from which accessibility and inclusion will be embedded in decision making just like Health & Safety.  Change may not come quickly. After all some of our infrastructure is Victorian. But there is much that can be done quickly and cost effectively. In fact I was in conversation with some London Bus Operators recently. Their assessment of what was possible far exceeded my expectations. This is really encouraging for a time when worry free, hassle free transport is normalized for Disabled People.

 

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My Access all Areas address

Welcome to Access All Areas 2019. My name is Alan Benson. I’m Chair of Transport for All. We’re the only charity campaigning exclusively on disabled and older people’s right to travel.

Get the shameless plug in early. Please do visit our stand while you’re here.

Anyway, we spend a lot of time working with TfL. It’s our role, using our experience, to help TfL improve their services. We also hold their feet to the fire when needed.

It’s as this critical friend that I’ve been asked to speak to you today.

I think there’s some nervous TfL staff here. I haven’t shared with them what I’m about to say. They don’t know if I’ll be the Critical or the Friend. If I’m not around later you know why.

So, I’ve got five minutes and about two hours’ worth of material. Here goes.

We know that access to public transport is vital. Vital for Physical Health. For mental health. For access to work. For access to social and cultural opportunities. Public transport is vital for disabled and older people to contribute to society. But most importantly we know that access to public transport is our right. We also know it’s not easy.

In the last week I missed a train because of slow assistance. I’ve missed buses because the wheelchair space was full. I’ve been stuck at Bank when the lift broke. Yes, I broke it. Apologies to anyone affected.

But, in that same week I’ve been to Stratford, Southwark, Camden, Docklands,  Greenwich, Lambeth, Westminster, Hammersmith, Richmond and the City. All on public transport run or managed by TfL.

This is only possible because of changes in the last 30 years. Changes in law, changes in approach and changes in attitudes. The Olympics in particular felt like a watershed. Since then, I think the pace has slowed. We must keep that pace up.

To prepare for today I asked around. What was the number one thing TfL has done to improve access recently. Some answers were unsurprising. Introducing new trains that have made many more stations level access, the taxi replacement policy was mentioned,  and of course the Please Offer Me A Seat badge. This has changed lives and gone global.

My choice is the Training Programme for Managers. Disabled people, many of whom are here today, are teaching the people who commission and run the services just what impact their choices have. The results are transformative, both now and for the future. No one else in the British transport sector is doing this.

Looking ahead we are already seeing the impact of  The Mayors Transport Strategy. Newly Step Free stations, with more to come. The goal to reduce excess journey times is really welcome. The Healthy Streets agenda will benefit everyone, but our voice must be heard.  The environment created must be accessible and inclusive, particularly for those with sight impairments.

But budgets are tight. Increasingly so. It’s crucial that Access programmes do not suffer.

I want to close with two thoughts two messages for you to take away.

The first is aimed at every disabled and older person here today, at every disabled and older traveller in London, indeed across the country.

Don’t give up. Things can seem bleak. When it’s cold, when it’s raining and you’ve not been able to get on that bus for whatever reason.

Don’t give up. We are where we are today because, to quote Newton, we stand on the shoulders of giants. We are those shoulders for those that come after us.

But mostly don’t give up because you have rights, the right to live the life you want to, and when your journey does go wrong tell TfL. They do listen.

My second message is to everyone, passenger and operator alike. It’s a clarion call to be disruptive. To challenge the status quo. “It’s always been done like this” is not good enough.

We need new ideas. Like the Please Offer Me a Seat badge. Like the “Look Up” campaign.

We need to turn conventional thinking on its head. If you can’t raise the platform then lower the train like Greater Anglia are doing.

Today is an opportunity to pass your ideas to TfL. Use it. After today talk to TfL directly,  or use TfAs helpline. We’ll pass the ideas on.

Thank you for listening. Enjoy your day.

 

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Signed Angry of Richmond

8/9/16

Richmond – Vauxhall – Oval – Return

Hi,

Last Thursday, 8/9/16, at 16.43 I arrived at Oval Stop D to catch a bus to Vauxhall.

There was a bus already at the stop so I indicated to the driver I’d like the ramp so I could board in my wheelchair.

Before the driver could close the door and deploy the ramp the bus behind decamped all it’s passengers who filed on to the bus I was attempting to board, including a mother with a buggy, filling the previously empty wheelchair space.

Also at the stop was a Go Ahead Inspector, number XXXX. He had his back to me and hadn’t seen me arrive.

I made myself known to him and explained that I wanted to board the bus. He said the wheelchair space was full, but that I could board the following bus which was empty and leaving in four minutes.

I told him I’d arrived first. He replied that he hadn’t seen me.

I requested that he ask the buggy to get off. He refused, again telling me I should board the following bus.

I told him he the rules required that he ask the buggy to get off. He told me this wasn’t the case.

At my request my PA got out my copy of the Big Red Book which I carry, showed it to the inspector and opened it at the page dealing with wheelchairs. He acknowledged that he knew the book, but still insisted that there is no priority for wheelchairs, and refused to ask the buggy to move.

At this point he instructed the driver to leave. The driver attempted to allow me on board, but was instructed to close the doors and depart, which he did.

Reluctantly I boarded the following bus, LJ61 GXL, a different service, which left in due course.

I find this episode extremely troubling for a number of reasons.

Firstly, of course, that an inspector, a senior member of staff, not only doesn’t know the rules regarding wheelchair priority, but also denies them when presented with a copy of the Big Red Book.

Secondly, the driver who obviously knew the rules and attempted to follow them has had his understanding questioned by a senior colleague. Next time he is faced with a similar situation, will he follow the correct procedure to enforce wheelchair priority or will he follow the example set by this inspector?

Thirdly, I fear that details of this incident may be relayed to other drivers in the garage and reinforce this incorrect and discriminatory approach.

Finally, and this may seem like a small thing but I think it’s important, I’m concerned about attitude. Although the inspector remained professional and courteous through the incident, at no point did he express any regret or offer an apology for my not being able to board the bus.

In the light of this incident I insist that :
– the incident is investigated to confirm the facts as I have laid them out,
– the inspector is disciplined for failing to follow the procedures laid out in The Big Red Book,
– the inspector undergoes additional, remedial training to correct his understanding of the procedures surrounding wheelchair priority,
– the driver of the bus is informed that his understanding of the rules regarding wheelchair priority is correct,
– and that you confirm to me by 10th October 2016 that these steps have been taken.

Please note that my PA can provide corroboration for the facts in this incident if necessary.

regards

Alan Benson
Chair,
Transport for All

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Sigh

1/8/2016

Richmond – Vauxhall – Oval – Return

Dear TfL Accessibility,

It’s been a while since I wrote to you. This is not because my trips have been incident free, far from it, but until tonight I have lacked a suitable motivation.

However, tonight I wanted to share with you my experience of waiting, in the rain, for a bus outside Richmond Station from 7.25pm this evening. In the following 30 minutes there were 5 scheduled buses that would take me to my intended destination. Two 190 services were advertised on the electronic departure board, but when they arrived their destination showed “Not in Service” and they did not stop. Two other buses, a 419 service, registration SN55 HKJ, and an R68 service, registration RX51 FGP, did stop but the ramps on both buses failed to deploy.

I finally boarded an R68 service at 7.55pm.

I cannot fault either driver for their efforts to deploy the ramps. Both followed the steps in the Big Red Book. Their equipment, the bus, was simply not fit for purpose.

I’m sure that both buses were reported, and their ramps received maintenance. However, I’m sure this also happened when I previously reported incidents involving SN55 HKJ.

What I’m keen to know, and the purpose of writing to you about this experience, is to ask what practical difference contacting you makes? What is done with the information I supply, and can you illustrate how service is improved as a result?

These questions sound rather mealy mouthed. Please believe me when I say that is not my intention. I’m happy to spend my effort reporting incidents of this nature to you, but only if that effort has some material impact, which I currently cannot see.

Best Regards

Alan

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My Learned Friend is a Twit

18/6/16

Richmond – Kew Green – Return

This week I took five trips out for various reasons. Of course being me none of them were particularly simple journeys. Every one used more than one type of transport and lasted more than 40 minutes each way, but as any Londoner will tell you, even the none disabled ones, this is par for the course in the capital.

Particularly worthy of note was my bus trip out to Kew Green today for the Kew fete, or more specifically the return journey. The first bus arrived with a brace of buggy’s in the wheelchair space. Neither parent was keen to move their charges to enable the buggy to be folded. The driver was visibly relieved when I told him I’d avoid an argument and wait for the next bus.

Of course it was sods law that when the next bus arrived the ramp crunched into the pavement, triggered the safety switch and retracted back into the bus. The best efforts of the driver to move the bus to a better position were for nought. I was again left standing by the side of the road as the bus departed.

The third bus arrived after another five minutes or so, I got on board and headed home.

So why have I bothered with this familiar tale of woe?

It hinges on the trip I took out on Wednesday to spend the day at the Supreme Court where a panel of seven Law Lords were hearing the case of Paulley verses First Group. This is, on the face of it, about the rights of wheelchair users to have priority access to the wheelchair space on buses, and whether bus companies should be required to enforce that right. During the day counsel for First Group claimed that it was rare for wheelchair users to be refused access due to an occupied wheelchair space.

I respectfully suggest that counsel is talking out of his backside.

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Saving Time

16/6/16
Richmond – Vauxhall – Brixton – Return

For a few years now I’ve been making regular trips out to Transport for All in Brixton. Now this should be a simple trip from Richmond to Vauxhall, then a five minute trip on the Underground to Brixton.

Only, of course it’s never that simple. Lacking a Dalek-like levitation ability I can’t use Vauxhall Underground station. A lift should have been installed over a year ago, but for reasons which remain entirely opaque, it’s still not working.

Instead, as you can see from many posts here, I’ve been going into Waterloo and taking the bus from there, adding 30 minutes or more depending on traffic to the journey. All in all I’ve probably wasted days on that bus watching the street-scape pass by.

Today I had to get creative.

I had a meeting with a very firm, fixed and immovable start time so of course things hadn’t gone well and I was running late. I considered asking the train driver to put his foot down (Is that a thing? I think trains are driven by hand) but quickly dismissed this idea as unlikely to succeed. Instead I looked at the map. Taking a bus from Vauxhall to Oval station would cut out two long sides of a triangle and save 15 minutes or more. Of course if it was that simple I could have done this long ago. Unfazed I set off.

The Richmond to Vauxhall leg is one I’ve done a lot recently heading to the Kia Oval and I was pleasantly surprised that it went smoothly with a ramp waiting for me when I arrived. The short bus ride to Oval station was a bit of a tight squeeze into a wheelchair space that wasn’t really big enough, but it did at least get me to a point where I could take a short stroll to the Brixton Road and my next connection.

Anyone who knows the top of Brixton Road will know that it has a high, double kerb. If you’re a lucky wheelchair user the bus can raise itself on it’s haunches like some snarling cat and use the extra height to get the ramp onto the pavement.

Do you think I was that lucky? Of course not.

I was of course devious. Much to the drivers bemusement I pulled my own portable ramp from it’s hiding place on the back of my chair and used that to bridge the gap.

This  is the point to this story. As a disabled person using public transport it’s not enough to have access to information, routes, timetables and the like, you also need detailed and specific knowledge. Sometimes even that is not enough. Sometimes you need your own hardware to literally fill the gaps in what the system provides.

But papering the cracks on your own just ensures the imperfect status quo persists.

What was my meeting? Interviewing for an Advice and Information Officer to help fight for our Right to Ride. Ironic?

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Hiatus or “Where’s Wally?”

It’s been quite a while since I last regaled you with the trials, tribulations and, yes, triumphs of my travels. I’m sure your life, dear reader, has not been bereft without my irregular ramblings but I thought a brief update was probably due.

Now I don’t want you to think that I’ve stopped using public transport. Far from it. My blazing wheel tracks can still be found all across London and beyond. Neither do I want you to think that suddenly everything is rosy in the garden. The hitches and hiccups I face every journey remain consistently and depressingly familiar. I could simply change the dates on old blog entries and republish them in many cases. In fact I no longer even report failed bus ramps to TfL as over a year of doing so has made no discernible difference. The definition of stupidity is to do the same thing over and over and expect a different result, as Einstein is often mis-attributed as saying.

But the outlook isn’t unrelentingly dreary. A good part of the reason for the dearth of posts is that keeping a blog going takes time and I have simply had other priorities for my waking hours.

The recent elections in London sucked up a lot of time, meeting with and lobbying candidates for both the Mayoralty and Assembly on how transport in the capital was failing disabled and older travellers and how they, if elected, could make things better. Now many of them have their feet under the table the effort switches to holding them to their campaign commitments. I’ve got promises in my pocket from a number of people to come out on a trip (you know who you are), so these should appear as posts at some point in the not too distant future.

For some years now I’ve been part of Transport for All and the excellent work it does to promote the Right to Ride of disabled and Older people. This means taking more trips to events, meetings and campaign actions but of course means less time to actually write up the stories. I’m proud to say I was recently elected Chair of this excellent organisation so pressures on my time are likely to get worse, rather than better.

But all work and no play makes Alan a very dull boy. Summer in England is a time for the thwack of willow upon leather (or is that leather upon willow?), and I’m fortunate enough to live within the gravitational pull of The Oval, home to Surrey County Cricket. The club has made huge efforts to be accessible to disabled people. Over the winter a new stand has been built with excellent wheelchair seating, and the fantastic Access Officer is always available and eager to help, a real champion of equality and accessibility within the club. So on those all too infrequent sunny days you’ll find me in SE11 enjoying the gentle pace of this quintessentially English sport, or the frenetic pace of T20, the illegitimate offspring! Anyone wishing to join me is very welcome.

As for the regular updates and tales of my transport woes, please hold, as they say, normal service will be resumed shortly.

Whatever ‘normal’ is.

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