Newcastle – Gateshead – Newcastle – Kings Cross – Hammersmith – Richmond
A slightly different post today. Not describing a journey, but instead detailing a trip with a purpose.
As a disabled person travelling on public transport throws up all sorts of challenges. Some of them are difficult and expensive to solve, like making train and tube stations step free, but some of them are cheap and simple to address and just require the will of a person with influence within an organisation to drive the change.
As a member of Transport for All I’ve been campaigning for some time, with others, on two demands. Firstly, we want bus companies to give priority to wheelchairs in the wheelchair space, after all the clue is in the name. Secondly, we don’t think it’s fair that disabled travellers should need to book their train travel at least 24 hours ahead.
The Annual General Meeting of Go Ahead, one of the UKs largest transport companies, seemed like the perfect opportunity to raise the issues at the highest level so, with the support of Share Action, I joined the AGM Army and set off to Newcastle on a dull, wet Autumn day.
I knew I wouldn’t have time to travel up on the day of the AGM, so I went up the day before. I’d hoped to stay in the hotel that was the venue for the AGM, but despite it’s huge size there weren’t any accessible rooms available. Instead I booked a room at the Hilton by Newcastle train station. This turned out to be a disaster, but being 300 miles from home I had little choice but to make the best of it. Although the accessible room had an accessible bathroom, the bed most definitely wasn’t for a wheelchair user like me. The second room we tried again had an inaccessible bed. The third room I was allocated had a beeping alarm, which turned out to be an air quality warning. Finally, four hours after first checking in, we found an accessible bed, although it was on a different floor to the accessible bathroom.
The next morning I set off on the walk to the AGM venue. I knew it was just across the river but I’d forgotten just how steep the climb down was and how steep it was up the other side. Apparently so too had Google Maps judging by the 15 minutes it predicted the trip would take. The slope of some of the roads and pavements was extremely hairy in a wheelchair, and the cobbles extremely uncomfortable, but I arrived in time and in one piece ready and raring to go.
Having being briefed by Share Action I had been expecting a large and very formal event, but in actual fact this was quite an intimate affair but still highly professional. It was clear that most of the attendees were familiar with each other. Although I felt very much an outsider I was still welcomed. After registering and being given a voting card I made my way into the meeting room.
Although there were only about 40 seats in the room they were nearly all full by the time the meeting started. There were 18 resolutions to pass before the opportunity for questions. Everyone in the room, except me, seemed to vote. I didn’t know enough so didn’t feel qualified to vote, but from the results displayed on the screen the voting in the room had no impact on the outcome. The registered postal votes for each resolution were in the hundreds of thousands, so this was clearly just a formal process, a fact which I found enlightening.
The tone of the meeting had been kept light so by the time the opportunity for questions came round I was feeling quite relaxed. The Chair asked that questions be kept brief which concerned me slightly as my pre prepared questions were rather long, however it quickly became clear that my efforts were not that long compared to the first couple that were raised.
Although some of the questions were related to the operation of the business, most of them,like mine, were related to particular service issues. I had carefully worked out my questions beforehand, although when the time came I found it quite difficult to keep to the script.
Some of the Go Ahead companies have policies which are shining examples of good practise, so I started my questions by pointing these out and describing just what a positive effect they have on disabled travellers like me. Once I had set the scene I challenged the board to adopt these examples of good practise across the rest of the group, and to meet with me and Transport for All to discuss how this might be achieved. The comments were well received and although no commitment was made in the meeting I was approached immediately afterwards and had a very productive conversation. I’m optimistic that this is the start of a useful engagement.
After the meeting it was interesting that almost everyone produced cases and luggage and began a journey back to London. Before I left I managed to connect with a couple of other transport campaigners who had also been there. It seems that using this strategy of engagement is increasing in popularity and, so they told me, has worked for them.
Since transport is my soapbox, and given that I didn’t want to repeat my walk across the Tyne, I took the Metro back to the train station. It was definitely an experience that makes me appreciate some of the efforts Transport for London take to upgrade the London Underground in terms of accessibility.
Apart from the practical problems of staying in Newcastle, and getting to and from the AGM itself, the experience was entirely positive. Attending the AGM of a large national company might seem daunting, but I would recommend it to anyone with an issue to raise. Be polite, respectful and firm, and most of all enjoy it.