- Richmond – Twickenham – Richmond
Today was the quarterly meeting of the Richmond Mobility Forum, a group comprised of individuals, user groups, local authority representations and representatives of transport providers all with an interest in accessibility within the borough of Richmond-upon-Thames. The more astute of you will have worked out I’m an interested party, or Stakeholder if you prefer, so I headed off for an afternoon of lively chat and discussion or at least free coffee and biscuits.
Before we go any further I have to reveal a piece of personal information I’m not proud of. I am capable of hate, pure unadulterated, visceral hate. Fortunately I manage to keep my hate completely in check and under control except in one very specific case, that of my nemesis, the Moriarty to my Holmes, the Voldemort to my Potter. The question is who could raise such ire in someone so calm and collected as me? The answer, I’m afraid, isn’t a who, it’s a what, and the what in question is the chair lift at Twickenham Station.
Any wheelchair user will tell you lifts come in various types. The most common type is a variation on the Otis or Schindler 8 person, sliding door, cage in a shaft lift. These are the most common and found everywhere from Offices to shopping centres, hotels to stations. They are the most reliable, but they’re also the most expensive. Installing a new lift at a station can cost up to £1m.
The next most common lift is the partially or fully enclosed platform lift. These come in many sizes and are usually used to raising a short distance, say for entrance to a building or in domestic settings with low usage. These can be installed for a little as £3,000 although obviously greater heights cost more, as does a quality product. My experience with these types of lift, confirmed by other people I’ve discussed this with, leads me to best describe them as essential but temperamental. (with the exception of a couple of notable examples which I’d describe as invariably broken and therefore useless.)
The final type of lift is an open platform lift. This is best described as a Stannah Stair Lift, with a flat platform replacing the seat. These lifts are cheap, as little as £1,000, but there’s a reason for that. They’re slow, very slow, unreliable as well as temperamental and spare parts always seem to come from abroad, usually Germany, so that when these lifts do break they stay broken for some time. One London theatre I know of had their lift faulty, but functional with effort, for a year. Last time I went the manager made a special effort to come and greet me so we could celebrate its repair together.
But the worst thing is that these lifts are terrifying to use. In all my years of wheelchair use I’ve steered clear of stairs, for obvious reasons. Going down stairs in a wheelchair almost never ends well. Yet here I am driving forwards into a platform, right up to the edge of a potentially fatal drop. Yes, I know there’s a a raised stop to prevent me going too far forwards but trust me, I have 24volts and two high torque motors on a machine weighing nearly 150kgs with a kerb climber. I’m only one controller failure or a slip of the wrist away from an honourable mention in next year’s Darwin Awards and some pun filled gruesome tabloid headlines.
It goes without saying that it’s this type of lift at Twickenham station. I’ve been trying to use Twickenham station for the last three years. Our relationship hasn’t been harmonious, all due to the platform lift. My first attempt to get off at Twickenham the lift was broken with an ETA to fix six months away. It was easier to give up and make alternative arrangements for the next year. Since then I’ve had mixed success, the most memorable failure of which was for the last Richmond Mobility forum, when I got to Twickenham and had to return to Richmond to start again due to the lift being broken. There’s irony in being late to an accessible transport meeting because of inaccessible transport! The one message I have kept receiving is spares are imported, so when it breaks repairs take up to 12 weeks.
With this history, I checked the status of the Twickenham lift on the South West Trains website before setting out so I had confidence. Nonplussed. Yes, that’s the word for how I felt when I got to the station. Clearly I’m not the only one with little faith in the Twickenham lift, as the dispatcher at Richmond followed ‘the procedure’ of calling ahead before he put me on the train to check the lift works. What knocked me sideways was being told the lift wasn’t working and hadn’t been since yesterday. With this news I’m left as a frustrated bystander as my train pulls in, does the passenger swap and departs. Nonplussed morphs to some mix of angry and frustrated.
The deeply apologetic dispatcher and I have started a discussion on the unsuitability of buses and the possibility of a taxi replacement when the platform phone rings. It seems Twickenham staff are just as frustrated and have been to try the broken lift, and discovered it is, in fact, working. The ice cream of my frustrated anger melts away in the warm sunshine leaving a lolly stick of bemusement, and a desire to get going to get to my meeting on time.
Of course I hadn’t quite finished. I’ve already mentioned how slow the lift is to operate. Out of interest I paid attention as I was making my way up in the lift and out of the station. Two additional trains arrived and departed westbound in the 13 minutes it took for me to exit the station.
This episode raises two key questions. If the lift is unreliable and untrusted, which it clearly is, then a better monitoring and reporting procedure is needed involving regular checks and improved communications between staff and stations. What is being done to develop and implement these procedures?
Also Twickenham is currently undergoing a £5.2mil redevelopment as befits the station servicing the UK’s Premier Rugby Stadium, with 10’s of thousands of passengers on match days and with hundreds of passengers every day including families with prams, elderly and those with mobility problems. How can such a major investment be made without putting some of the money into replacing this inadequate lift? This is a missed opportunity which won’t come round again any time soon.