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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Generosity

29/3/16

Richmond – Return

I needed to pop into Richmond for a night of Theatrical based culture and giventhat I waas still somewhat chilly from my earlier exploits I attempted to stay warm-ish by catching the bus.

The bus pulled up at the stop. The ramp deployed. The door opened. I got on. So far so uneventful.

My PA went to touch in. The driver smiled, greeted her like an old friend and slipped her two individually wrapped Lindt(*) chocolates.

I think maybe I’m using the bus too much.

* – Other high sugar snack treats are available.

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The Visit That Wasn’t

9/4/16

Richmond – Westminster – Return

Lots of trips out lately. In fact so many that I’m not keeping up with regaling you, dear and valued reader with my exploits. That’s not to say that suddenly a transport nirvana has been achieved, but truth be told there haven’t been any major disasters (or triumphs.)

But the Screw Up Fairy is always waiting in the wings to make a surprise guest appearance.

For a little while a friend of mine has been a guest of St Thomas’ Hospital. I was already heading into Richmond so decided to jump on the tube and head to Westminster to see her.

The bus trip was unremarkable and I fortunately bumped into the ramp wrangler as I entered Richmond station. He promised to come and put me on the train, once it arrived.

Sadly, when it did arrive, it was the old D stock so I waited patiently while the other passengers boarded. And I waited. And waited. With moments to spare, and to the relief of my rising panic, wrangler arrived with ramp and I got on. We cut it so fine the closing door nearly clipped my rear wheels. I think the driver had been waiting.

As we rattled and clattered our way across West London in the old bone shaker more and more people got on. As often happens at the weekend by the time we reached Westminster it was akin to rush hour, which makes moving a wheelchair a delicate, careful operation.

As a precaution I put my chair in the doorway and waited for a ramp wrangler.  I brushed off repeated offers of assistance from other well meaning but misguided passengers. The horrified looks on faces as the doors closed and trapped me are always entertaining. After a pause the door opened before trying once more to close, and again failing. The driver’s response to this is to threaten, over the tannoy, to take the train out of service if the door in the rear coach isn’t allowed to close.

What he fundamentally fails to understand is that he might be in charge, but I am in control and I will not be bullied or cajoled when the fault lies with TfL for not properly providing a ramp.

And so we find ourselves in a modern Mexican Stand Off. The driver repeatedly opens and closes the door, regularly reissuing his threat. I stay right where I am, apologising to those around me who are for the most part understanding and sympathetic.

Six times the door slams into me before my travel companion reaches the now frustrated driver and explains, in short, simple words that this is not an argument he is going to win. He concedes and radios for a wrangler.

After a few minutes the wrangler arrives proffering sincere apologies, I leave the train and the train departs, about 8 minutes late.

My apologies to all those affected by delays on the District and Circle lines. It was me.

It turns out that all this was unnecessary. When I reached St Thomas’ I discovered my friend had been discharged the previous evening. Ho hum.

On the incident free return trip I bumped in to the wrangler again. He confessed that he had known I was coming, he’d just gone to the wrong platform.

Basically people are a problem.

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8 + 4 = 1

31/3/2016

Richmond – Waterloo – Richmond – Waterloo – Westminster – Fitzrovia – South Bank – Waterloo – Richmond

Some days the world is against you. Fate glances in your direction and just gives you a big ol slap to remind you that you are just flotsam in this soup of happen-stance and coincidence called reality. The thing to do on these days is not to give these Wisps of misfortune a helping hand.

For once in my life I got organised and was running ahead of time. The sun was out and I set off  with a positive feeling that spring has most assuredly sprung. I caught both the bus and the train without incident and disembarked at Waterloo with plenty of time to catch my bus.

Arriving at the bus stop just before me was another wheelchair. In the best British queuing tradition she got the space on the bus which is pretty galling. A double decker bus left the stop otherwise empty but still leaving me on the kerbside. More spaces required.

The silver lining to this particular cloud is that it gave me chance to realise that all the tickets I needed for the days events were still sitting on the kitchen table. Feeling stupid and annoyed in equal measure I headed back into Waterloo to catch the train home to collect them.

At Waterloo there are a group of ‘catchers’ sitting at the assistance desk. Their role is to catch your cry for help and summon a ramp wrangler to your aid. Clearly sometimes they don’t enjoy being trapped. One of the catchers that I see quite frequently, when the wrangler didn’t show up, grabbed his coat and set off with me to the platform. He explained on the way that he didn’t have his key to unlock the ramp, but we’d done this before so he knew I carry one always. Despite not having a radio he was still able to contact Richmond and make sure I was met. There was a certain symmetry provided by the fact that the train back was the same one I came in on.

Having picked up the tickets I set out again. The second time the journey was just as uneventful as the first time. In fact it was better in that the wheelchair space on the bus was free for me.

I’d planned my route quite meticulously as usual. What I stupidly hadn’t done is check how to get from the Scotland Yard bus stop to Scotland Yard itself. In the end I popped into an office and asked the receptionist for directions. It turns out the enormous building is hidden down a side street.

After the meeting I set off towards my next meeting at Portland Hall. My first problem was getting onto the Boris Bus. As so often happens the ramp deployed in to, not on to, the kerb. The problem was resolved by the Conductor who appeared as if by magic and yanked the ramp upwards just in time. Once more the triumph of brute force over technology.

Again I’d planned the route, and again my attention to detail was …. less than it should have been. I knew I needed to change buses at Trafalgar Square. I even knew which stop I needed. What I’d failed to do is look up where that stop was! I did try asking the conductor, but he was as clueless as I was. I did eventually find it by a combination of luck and good judgement in equal measure.

Of course Easter in London means tourists, lots of families with buggies, and sure enough when my bus arrived it was packed with buggies in the wheelchair space like some game of infant tetris. The driver did begin the process of asking them to move, but was very obviously relieved when I volunteered to catch the next one. I wouldn’t have done this if I’d known how long the next one would take to arrive.

Eventually, with a rising sense of panic, I joined the next bus that was even going in vaguely the right direction. I resigned myself to a short walk at the other end. Of course no good dead goes unpunished and my delay meant the bus got snarled up in the rush hour Regent Street traffic. Even after I got off I was caught in a jam, this time of dawdling shoppers and tourists who kept stopping to take selfies or veer into stores at the last moment. Needless to say more than one person will be nursing sore and scarred ankles tomorrow.

For once I knew exactly where I was heading but this didn’t help me. I arrived easily enough, but only to discover people loitering on the pavement and road outside. I discovered, through rumour, that the building had been evacuated. Other people were going in and speaking to reception, an option denied to me by a short flight of steps. Sensing my confusion, I suspect, a member of staff acted as my translator and conveyed messages to the receptionist. It transpired that flooding 24 hours previously had rendered the meeting room a swimming pool causing a change in venue. Don’t ask me why the convener hadn’t sent an e-mail. The new location? A 15 minute walk away in a hall I had not long walked right past. The irony is that the topic of the meeting was how to manage and motivate campaigners and activists. Perhaps it started with a practical demonstration on the importance of communication and I simply missed the subtlety.

Fortunately the next leg, later in the evening, to the South Bank by bus, went without a hitch. As so often transport in London works so much better when fewer people are trying to use it and there’s less traffic on the road.

The final leg was a late night train home. There is no official assistance at Waterloo after 9.45pm so I headed straight to the platform when I arrived. Although not an official ramp wrangler the train dispatcher was happy to help me board. He even provided me with the train head code (a unique number which identifies every train service) though he seemed surprised I should even know about it, let alone want it.

I was confident that, at that time of night, the message of my impending arrival might not get through. My solution was to phone them myself using the station managers number which I picked up a few years ago. Not that this helped. When we arrived at Richmond the platform was deserted and the guard had to assist me off.

So after a pretty poor day of delays, screw ups, 8 buses and four trains, the only actual transport problem I had was one missing ramp. The takeaway lesson, though, is most definitely don’t just plan the route.  Make sure I know where I’m walking/wheeling to.

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