Travel for disabled people – better but still not good enough

3/2/2016

Richmond – Waterloo – Twickenham – Richmond – Hammersmith – Green Park – Earls Court – Richmond

Last year I met with  journalist & author Christian Wolmar as part of his bid for the Labour Party nomination for London Mayor. We talked about what it’s like to use public transport in London for disabled people. I offered to show him and he gladly accepted. His write up of the experience is available on his blog at http://www.christianwolmar.co.uk/2016/02/rail-794-lincolnshire-deserves-better-and-so-do-disabled-people/.

It is republished below, with permission.

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I recently spent an afternoon travelling round the London transport network with a wheelchair user and blogger, Alan Benson, to discover the difficulties and obstacles to making it easier. Alan, who has travelled by rail ever since first needing a wheelchair 20 years ago, has had some pretty bad experiences in his time, getting left on trains beyond his intended arrival station because no one was available to help him off and once even ending up in sidings. However, he is the first to admit that things have got better since the days when he would share draughty guards vans with mailbags, rattling bicycles that threatened to fall on top of him and bad tempered guards.

However, they are still not good enough though that is not the fault of the staff who were helpful and solicitous on our journey from Waterloo to Green Park, via train, bus and Underground. Indeed, from the woman who helped him on the train at Waterloo to the charming young man at Green Park, the attitude of the staff was really heartwarming.

On our journey, as it happens, nothing went wrong. On previous trips with VIPs  such as the Tory candidate for London mayor, Alan’s MP Zac Goldsmith, there have been various mishaps such as buses flashing by because the driver is unwilling to pick up a disabled passenger or staff not being available to help him off trains. Buggies are a particular bugbear. When I was a Dad with young children, we had strollers that folded up and cost £15 or so. Now parents parade their children in something that is more a cross between a Sherman Tank and a tractor, which means that getting on public transport for the likes of Alan is tough if they have got in first, despite the fact that the rules are in his favour.

On the railway, however, the main problem as he put it is ‘the stress of uncertainty’. While good experiences outnumber bad, the prospect of a bad journey deters many disabled people from using the railways. This would be helped by better training as train operating staff mostly only get a half day’s induction about the special needs of disabled people.

There are, too, many daft rules and regulations around both stations and trains that are not consistent and that could do with, as he suggests, independent scrutiny to make them simpler and understandable. For example, at Hammersmith on the two adjoining platforms used respectively by the District and Piccadilly lines, London Underground will not allow a ramp to be used for the District Line trains as it is reckoned there is not sufficient width. However, staff will provide a ramp to lower wheelchair users into the Piccadilly trains. Alan has tried for years to try to get this ban ended. So Alan has taken to carrying round his own ramp, a fantastic piece of kit that costs more than £300 because it is so lightweight. Indeed, though very expensive, it would surely be worthwhile for various train operators to purchase these ramps, since they are possible for any staff member to handle, not just the strong ones.

And finally, there is the issue of infrastructure. Journeys for disabled people are often far slower than for the able bodied because the equipment is so primitive. I watched as Alan was  taken up on a platform lift from the platform at Twickenham – a station that incidentally is in a pretty shameful state with a ghastly corrugated roof with grass growing on it despite the ‘tarting up’ for last year’s Rugby World Cup. The assistant was, again, very helpful, but it took us ten minutes to get out of the station – after a 25 minute journey!

The key point is that the industry needs to ‘think disabled’. Not all disabled users are in wheelchairs, but there are huge numbers of them and that is set to grow with an ageing and often unfit population. Many managers could start by going for a trip like I did – they will learn a lot.

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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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