How to Make A £5m Accessible Train Inaccessible.

28/7/15

Richmond – Waterloo – Brixton – Waterloo – Westminster – Richmond

I’ve had a few trips recently that have gone quite well. Reading other accounts I’ve also noticed trips going well for other disabled travellers so I’d begun to think that maybe the tide was turning. Maybe things going wrong was about to become the exception rather than the rule.

These observations made the bump I got falling back to earth today all the more painful. This definitely wasn’t helped by the technology gremlins ganging up on me to stop me writing the e-mail I so badly wanted to send.

I had an idea the trip would go badly even before the first bus stopped. I was sure I recognised it’s number as one I’d had problems with before. Sure enough, when it did stop, the ramp didn’t want to leave it’s nice warm storage slot. All credit to the driver. He tried both moving the bus and restarting it, twice each, in his attempt to persuade the thing to cooperate and much to both my and his relief it eventually did. I was able to get on and start my day, but I made a note of the bus details on my phone. I felt another complaint brewing.

The train trip into Waterloo went so well I won’t even bother mentioning it, except that I just did.

Even the next bus leg didn’t go badly, for me at least. The large double decker stuck at the stop empty and going nowhere with it’s ramp out made me think that things had obviously gone very badly for someone. This stuck bus meant that now every bus had to stop short of the stop. Not a problem for me, but a serious one for anyone who is visually impaired.

I set back on the return after my meeting, but only just. In my wheelchair I’m not an insignificant size or presence, even more so when there is no street furniture to get in the way. I mention this because somehow the driver of the bus I was waiting for completely failed to see me. Fortunately I smelled something fishy and waved at her from the front door before she pulled away, which did the trick and got her to put the ramp out.

Once I got back to Waterloo I had to get to Westminster. Rather than take the underground for the short journey I decided to walk in the warm sunshine. Of course the problem with this plan, at this time of year, is crossing Westminster Bridge through the hordes of tourists all taking photos in every direction of London’s many iconic landmarks, completely oblivious to the dangers of stepping, unexpectedly into the path of an incoming wheelchair. In the interests of international relations I missed them all, though I’m still not sure how.

It was after my second meeting that things got really interesting. My journey started at Westminster Underground, a station through which hundreds of thousands of people pass every day, including a great many visitors to this great city. Now the ticket office is closed the only staff are those on the gate line. Today this was one staff member and a trainee. Of course, once the staff member took me to board my train this left one very scared looking trainee supporting the massed hordes of lost tourists, Oysterless businessmen and skateboarding hipsters. I bet he didn’t expect that on his first day in a new job.

“I told you so” is one of the most smug, least welcome comments a person can ever hear. It serves no purpose except to make the person saying it feel superior, whilst at the same time showing to the rest of the world just how petty they really are. It gives me no pleasure then to be the one saying it. What happened next was a scenario I raised with TfL over a year ago, and one which will become increasingly frequent until the new S stock trains are fully deployed on the District line. Bear with me while I explain.

The current D type trains have wheelchair spaces throughout their length, but Underground policy is to put wheelchairs at the most western end of the train, supposedly to be close to the driver but this doesn’t make sense on an eastward bound train. The new S type trains have wheelchair spaces roughly in the middle of the train, and the platforms have been built up at this point to allow for step free, ramp less access.

The problem comes when you’re running both types of train, which is what happened today. The ramp wrangler took me to the front of the train, expecting a D type train. What arrived was a (very full, this was rush hour) shiny, new S train. With no time to change plans the wrangler put the ramp down and I squeezed in between the cramped commuters. There was of course no proper space for the chair.

Arriving at Richmond there was no sign of assistance. I can only assume that, realising it was a new, step free train, they thought I would be able to simply wheel off and so had unilaterally decided to leave me to get on with it. Of course, the platform has not been altered at the front of the train, leaving me facing quite a step. When it became clear that help wasn’t coming I carefully, and rather unpleasantly, left the train, backwards, making sure someone was behind me to stop the chair tipping over and depositing me unceremoniously onto the platform.

It’s great spending tens of thousands of pounds on platform alterations and £5m+ on a new train, but it’s wasted if policies aren’t adapted to meet the new situation at the coalface.

There was a certain symmetry to the day when I recognised the bus approaching to take me on the last leg of the day. Sadly I recognised it for the same reason as the day’s first bus, a previous failed ramp experience. This time I wasn’t so lucky and nothing the driver could do would persuade this ramp to work. Fortunately another bus followed it, so I added the problem buses details to the notes on my phone and jumped on to the alternative to get home.

The key thing about taking notes so that you can complain is to make sure you can retrieve them. I have no idea how it happened but somehow I managed to lose them all. I’m not going to blame the technology, I’m sure the fault was mine, but the upshot is that I don’t have the necessary detail to complain.

Never mind. I’m sure I’ll get another chance.

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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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