It Never Goes Wrong When Someone’s Watching.

14/7/15

Richmond – Waterloo – Southwark – Tower Bridge – Bricklayer’s Arms – Elephant & Castle – Southwark – Waterloo – Richmond

There is an old adage about the journey being more important than the destination. Sometimes this is literally true.

Last December I sat on a panel with Mike Weston from Transport for London. The discussion centred around the advances that have been made making buses in London accessible, and the obstacles that still exist. During the debate I invited Mike to come on a trip with me, which he happily agreed to. It’s taken a while to arrange (my fault, not Mikes) but today we went on that trip. I also invited Claire from Thoughtistic to add her perspective.

We were meeting in Southwark so my first step was to get there, and it didn’t start well. The driver of the first bus somehow completely failed to see me waiting at the stop. Quite an achievement given the size of my wheelchair. I managed to stir him by standing at the door and waving like some windmill on steroids, after which he put the ramp out and I boarded. Getting off didn’t go much better. He shut the doors immediately I was off, trapping those passengers following me and generating some peeved cries of frustration.

The train to Waterloo went much better, though I found myself doing something rather depressing almost on autopilot. I arranged the ramp wrangler and then went to wait at what I knew would be the right place on the platform. Without conscious thought I’d checked the departure board for the stops, worked out the type of train to expect and therefore where to wait. I think I’m officially turning into a train nerd. If anyone knows a good therapist let me know, I obviously need help.

I got on and off the train entirely incident free, and met Claire at Waterloo. Together we walked to Southwark to start the journey proper.

I spent most of yesterday wrestling with the TfL Journey Planner, Bus Route Maps and Google to work out a useful route in the time available. This is extraordinarily difficult when you don’t actually have a real destination and you have no knowledge of the area you’re planning on travelling in. In the end I planned a circular route using four buses. My plan was to give as much scope as possible for things to go wrong.

Satisfyingly things went wrong from the start. Sadly it was entirely my own fault. I’d been so busy talking with Mike that I walked straight past the bus stop. Once I realised my mistake we turned round and retraced our steps to start the journey for real. Not surprisingly for the Director of Bus Operations, Mike has an encyclopaedic knowledge of bus routes so, using the natty txt notification of bus times, he suggested catching the next bus rather than my planned one. Adding more scope for cock-up seemed like a great idea to me so that’s what we did.

It turns out the 381 route runs some rather old buses, which means a ramp that, although functional, is rather too steep for comfort. In fact steep ramps became a bit of a theme for the day. I’m in the fortunate position that my chair can cope with them, even if sometimes my nerves can’t. Other wheelchair users aren’t so lucky, but Mike assured me that the programme of replacement meant this bus was likely to be gone within 12-18 months. Whilst I was rather isolated in my position in the wheelchair space, Claire talked with Mike about some of the challenges Autism brings, including the conflicts over priority seating when your disability is hidden, the importance of the i-bus audio/visual announcements and the assistance drivers can provide which makes such a positive difference.

After a short trip we changed onto one of the new fleet of hydrogen buses running on the RV1 route. There was a small hiccup in that a badly positioned phone box ahead of the bus stop meant the driver couldn’t see me until he was almost stopped, but this didn’t cause a problem. It did fortunately highlight the importance of stop design and the key role of the various authorities to coordinate and/or rationalise the placement of street furniture.

These RV1 buses are quiet, comfortable and have plenty of space for me and my chair. There was an elderly lady with a shopping trolley blocking the way as the bus pulled up, but by the time the ramp was out she had moved further down the bus. I took this chance to ask Mike about the requirement for wheelchairs to travel backwards which is apparently a Department for Transport requirement. Looks like I’ll have to explain the physics of inertia and acceleration to someone in Government.

The next change was on Tower Bridge onto an even older 42 service. Pleasingly the ramp didn’t actually deploy, a not uncommon situation. Quick as a flash the driver jumped out of his cab and applied the percussive maintenance technique I’ve described previously (i.e. he kicked it!) with the same successful result. This proactive and helpful approach from drivers was common to all the buses we took and was one of the lessons of trip. The two year programme of training has definitely had positive results, even if my first bus of the day proves the success isn’t entirely universal.

Sadly the age of this bus meant it was particularly loud and uncomfortable which made Claire feel quite unwell by the time we reached Bricklayer’s Arms, our next change. Fortunately the 63, although far from new, was better. As it pulled up I could see a buggy in the wheelchair space, however she moved as soon as the driver played the automated announcement. I was then able to slip into the space, leaving enough room behind me for the buggy, proving again that often it doesn’t have to be an either/or battle but through cooperation buggies and wheelchairs can travel together. Just for the avoidance of doubt though, it’s not called “The Wheelchair Space” for no reason!

The final bus back to Palestra, TfL’s headquarters, a 168, was entirely unremarkable.

I had planned for a number of obstacles or events on the journey. I had expected traffic to slow us down, and had deliberately planned a route past schools so that we might experience the chaos of the end of the school day. In the event none of this happened. What is it that they say about the best laid plans of mice and men? Although nothing went wrong during the trip it did serve to highlight where things could have gone wrong, and also the advances that TfL and the bus companies have made over the last few years. It also gave me an insight into some of the plans for the next few years, especially around a focus on customer service.

We left Mike at Palestra and headed back to Waterloo where Claire and I separated. After a rather eventful day I was pleased that arranging the ramp onto and off the train back to Richmond went without a hitch. If things carry on like this I may have to reconsider writing this blog. After all what’s the point of writing if there’s no story to tell.

You know what? I suspect there are more tales to tell yet.

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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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