I’m Nearly Normal

7/6/2015

Richmond – Earls Court – Green Park – Langham Place – Euston – Willesden Jct – Richmond

I travel quite frequently, not daily, but certainly often enough to consider myself seasoned. Although I write a lot about things going wrong on these trips, it’s very rare that I get emotionally invested, for good or bad. Que Sera as they say, getting worked up won’t help. However, once in a while I can’t help myself.

In order to travel I invariably need the assistance of other people in some way. On buses (in London) this is quite low impact, the driver deploys the ramp without getting up from his seat (usually). On trains it’s somewhat less effortless. Across the rail network there are a plethora of different ramps to fit different trains. If you look around at any station you can often see three or four different ramps on any particular platform, but they all have one thing in common, they need a person, a ramp wrangler, to fetch them and lay them on the train. I’ve been told often that it’s the age of our stations and variety in platforms that means there can’t be automatic ramps on trains as there are with buses.

The Underground, as you may know, is slightly different. It is, in parts, as old as any rail network, but it has consistency in the type of trains running on any line. This means that where ramps are available, only one type is needed (caveats apply, but I’m going to skip over those for brevity). Sadly however these ramps are still manual and require the intervention of a ramp wrangler. Richmond is one such station with rattly, decrepit 40 year old trains.

d-type

Outgoing D-Type Train

As usual I arrived at the station and sought out assistance. Together we made our way to the platform, picking up the ramp on the way. What greeted my when I arrived was not expected. Instead of the usual bone-shaker, sitting waiting to depart was a shiny new S-Type train. These have been on the Wimbledon branch for some time, but there are only a few (like one?) in use on the Richmond branch, for testing. Apart from shiny and new, why is this a big deal? The platform at Richmond, and other step free District Line stations, has been raised to allow many (but not all) wheelies to have level access to the train, no ramp, or assistance, required. Apparently even the ramp wrangler didn’t know.

s-type

New S-Type Train

This simple ability to get on and off the train where and when I like, without relying on booked assistance, the freedom to change my mind mid journey, frankly being able to travel like every other Londoner, fills me with an absurd amount of pleasure. Being able to just be ‘normal’ shouldn’t make anyone this happy.

Of course these trains aren’t being fully rolled out until sometime in 2016, so until then I will remain special.

Interestingly the booked assistance at Earls Court didn’t show up. But of course with the new train it didn’t matter. The icing on the cake was that the Picadilly line at Earls Court and Green Park is also step free to train, so for the first time ever I was able to make a full, end-to-end underground journey with changes without having any assistance. I feel like a teenager who’s just made his first trip across London without his parents! Of course, it would have been more convenient to get off at Oxford Street, but step free there is a long way off.

I decided, for no other reason than variety, to return on the Overground. It didn’t offer the same simplistic joy of the inward journey, but the assistance was there when I needed it, and very unusually the schedule worked out so that there was no waiting between trains. If only it was always this efficient.

Sadly, the final bus leg of the trip was quite unpleasant. The driver insisted I face backwards. Whilst this is the regulation I have no idea why. The bus accelerating and turning corners means I am usually thrown around like a rag doll. I have tried to find out why wheelchairs users are required to sit contrary to everyone else on the bus, but so far no joy. The search continues.

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About Alan

I'm an Economist, Geek, Campaigner & wheelchair user who's been using all forms of public transport for 20+ years.
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9 Responses to I’m Nearly Normal

  1. Pat Hamilton says:

    Hi Alan
    Wow! Some really good news for a change.
    I am learning from you for the day when I may need to be in a wheelchair all the time. At present I sometimes use trains with my manual wheelchair and often find the assistance (ramps) booked do not appear.
    When I hired an electric wheelchair to use on buses I found that it was very difficult to turn right around to put the back into the required position, especially if the bus was crowded, and getting off was even more difficult. I also got stuck by the shopping storage area both when getting on and off, and drivers had to assist me sometimes. I found the experience too stressful, and gave up the chair.
    Please keep blogging.
    Pat
    PS. Like you I find it degrading to be expected to book 24 hours ahead. If I go to London for a day out, how do I know which train I might want to return on?

    • Alan says:

      Pat,

      Your experiences are familiar to many disabled travellers, including me. We know that things can work, so it’s particularly disappointing that so often they don’t.

      I entirely understand why the amount of stress involved in travelling puts you off. It’s such a shame that you’re disabled by your environment when we, as a society, have the means to remove these relatively straight forward barriers to benefit so many.

      If you do come to London you might consider contacting Transport for All. It’s free to join and they can help you plan journeys in the capital, or help you complain when things go wrong. (I have to declare an interest here. I’m a member myself)

      I’d urge you not to give up on the electric chair. They do take a bit of practice to get used to, I know it took me a while, but the freedom and independence they can offer is worth the perseverance.

      I’m meeting with TfL management in a few weeks. I will pass on your experiences if you don’t mind (anonymously of course).

      Alan

      • Pat Hamilton says:

        Hi Alan

        Lincoln etc – you really seem to have far more bad than good journeys.

        My latest story is that I wanted to go to visit family in central London at the weekend of June 20/21. I had the friend to drive my car to a station (Blue Badge for the free car parking), and to push my wheelchair in London. But it was the weekend of the London to Brighton cycle race!

        Impossible to get to Brighton Station on the Sunday, and Saturday would have had bikes on the train. So I booked tickets and assistance at Lewes and Victoria Stations for the Sunday. (More than 24 hours in advance).

        None of the assistance materialised, but we managed quite easily. Had I been on my own, it would have been frightening.

        Wow! Lovely buses from Victoria to Trafalgar Square and then, along the Strand. Three entrances/exits! Much better than here.
        We used the central doors each time when the ramp emerged. Did not manage to show we had tickets, but we had.

        These were new buses. Are the ones with the faulty ramps you mention older buses?

        Saw friends, two art galleries and the nice Cafe Nero stall at Charing Cross Station. A good day out!

        Pat

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  3. Alan says:

    Pat,

    I’m really pleased you had a good day out, even if you were let down by the assistance. I would urge you to write to or e-mail the train company and complain. If they insist on booking then they ought to uphold their end of the deal. Failures like these need investigating and preventing from happening again, especially since Victoria is part of the turn-up-and-go trial.

    The bus you used is the new Bus for London, or Boris Bus. They are very smart, and the ramps much better than on many of the older buses which cause me and others so many problems. However, they’re not perfect. Without air conditioning they have been extremely hot recently, and the hearing loop has had problems on some buses. Personally I think it was also a missed opportunity to design a bus for space with two wheelchairs.

    As for my journeys they are usually successful in that I get where I need to, but, like yours, they are rarely perfect. Disabled people shouldn’t need to travel with friends or PAs to pick up the slack when things go wrong. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge supporter of public transport, but I’m also keen to see it improve for everyone.

    Alan

  4. I think the facing-backwards thing is basically because of physics: It’s a safer position to be in in case of the bus having to brake suddenly. In an emergency stop situation or a crash it’s expected that everyone on the bus will be thrown forwards and, whereas able-bodied folks will be able to grab something or use their feet to stabilise themselves, people using wheelchairs wouldn’t be able to and could end up being thrown onto the floor and possibly seriously injured, whereas facing backwards means that an emergency stop just pushes you more firmly into the chair.

    I actually suspect that if they could get away with it they’d have all of the passengers face backwards, not just the folks on wheels – but then they’d have to deal with people like me getting instantly motion sick from not being able to see where I’m going! Not sure where side-facing puts you on the danger scale though, which would be my personal preference.

    • (The above is actually the same reason modern children’s car seats are also designed to face backwards in the vehicle, it also provides more head and neck support in the event of a stop)

    • Alan says:

      Physics is exactly why I personally have a problem with travelling backwards. Every time the bus accelerates I’m thrown out of the chair. Unlike when braking there is often lateral movement as the bus goes round a corner, throwing me sideways too. At least when braking the inertia only applies in one direction.

      Most wheelchair users are as capable as anyone else of bracing themselves. (Which is to say, in accidents of any speed, completely ineffectively) Those, like me, who don’t have the ability are more likely to be secured in their chair, which I would argue makes them safer than other bus passengers.

      You are of course right about safety and backwards facing child seats but for me it comes down to a risk assessment. Is my comfort outweighed by the relatively small risk of an accident, which in town is likely to be low speed. Why should my ability to make my own choice be restricted more than a non wheelchair using passenger, who can choose to sit or stand in any number of ways. Out of town, faster travel is invariably by coach where chairs face forwards, but are strapped down.

      Interestingly trains instruct wheelchairs to reverse up to a designated wall and apply the brakes irrespective of direction of travel.

      I’ve asked this very question of a number of senior people from a few bus companies. Unanimously the response has been “Beats me. The Department for Transport imposes it on us.”

      There’s also the practical issue that facing forwards I can share the wheelchair space with a buggy. Facing backwards there’s not enough room (it’s about where footplates go).

  5. Pat Hamilton says:

    Good point about being able to share a space with buggies. I notice that they are often parked sideways, but the kids are too young to comment or object.
    I did not find it comfortable facing backwards on a bus in a wheelchair, apart from not seeing where I was going/or get off.

    But sideways I hate.
    I can still remember how uncomfortable sitting sideways along inside a minibus across France was decades ago. I vowed never to travel sideways in a bus again.

    One time when I went from Victoria to Brighton in a train, I was put in a wheelchair space facing sideways into the aisle. Half past seven train on a Thursday. It was still rush hour, which I had not realised, and I had other passengers practically on top of me. Most unpleasant journey. Just like a sardine.

    I agree that we should have the same options as able-bodied people.

    Keep writing the blog, Alan. I enjoy reading it.
    Pat

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