The Visit That Wasn’t


Richmond – Westminster – Return

Lots of trips out lately. In fact so many that I’m not keeping up with regaling you, dear and valued reader with my exploits. That’s not to say that suddenly a transport nirvana has been achieved, but truth be told there haven’t been any major disasters (or triumphs.)

But the Screw Up Fairy is always waiting in the wings to make a surprise guest appearance.

For a little while a friend of mine has been a guest of St Thomas’ Hospital. I was already heading into Richmond so decided to jump on the tube and head to Westminster to see her.

The bus trip was unremarkable and I fortunately bumped into the ramp wrangler as I entered Richmond station. He promised to come and put me on the train, once it arrived.

Sadly, when it did arrive, it was the old D stock so I waited patiently while the other passengers boarded. And I waited. And waited. With moments to spare, and to the relief of my rising panic, wrangler arrived with ramp and I got on. We cut it so fine the closing door nearly clipped my rear wheels. I think the driver had been waiting.

As we rattled and clattered our way across West London in the old bone shaker more and more people got on. As often happens at the weekend by the time we reached Westminster it was akin to rush hour, which makes moving a wheelchair a delicate, careful operation.

As a precaution I put my chair in the doorway and waited for a ramp wrangler.  I brushed off repeated offers of assistance from other well meaning but misguided passengers. The horrified looks on faces as the doors closed and trapped me are always entertaining. After a pause the door opened before trying once more to close, and again failing. The driver’s response to this is to threaten, over the tannoy, to take the train out of service if the door in the rear coach isn’t allowed to close.

What he fundamentally fails to understand is that he might be in charge, but I am in control and I will not be bullied or cajoled when the fault lies with TfL for not properly providing a ramp.

And so we find ourselves in a modern Mexican Stand Off. The driver repeatedly opens and closes the door, regularly reissuing his threat. I stay right where I am, apologising to those around me who are for the most part understanding and sympathetic.

Six times the door slams into me before my travel companion reaches the now frustrated driver and explains, in short, simple words that this is not an argument he is going to win. He concedes and radios for a wrangler.

After a few minutes the wrangler arrives proffering sincere apologies, I leave the train and the train departs, about 8 minutes late.

My apologies to all those affected by delays on the District and Circle lines. It was me.

It turns out that all this was unnecessary. When I reached St Thomas’ I discovered my friend had been discharged the previous evening. Ho hum.

On the incident free return trip I bumped in to the wrangler again. He confessed that he had known I was coming, he’d just gone to the wrong platform.

Basically people are a problem.

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8 + 4 = 1


Richmond – Waterloo – Richmond – Waterloo – Westminster – Fitzrovia – South Bank – Waterloo – Richmond

Some days the world is against you. Fate glances in your direction and just gives you a big ol slap to remind you that you are just flotsam in this soup of happen-stance and coincidence called reality. The thing to do on these days is not to give these Wisps of misfortune a helping hand.

For once in my life I got organised and was running ahead of time. The sun was out and I set off  with a positive feeling that spring has most assuredly sprung. I caught both the bus and the train without incident and disembarked at Waterloo with plenty of time to catch my bus.

Arriving at the bus stop just before me was another wheelchair. In the best British queuing tradition she got the space on the bus which is pretty galling. A double decker bus left the stop otherwise empty but still leaving me on the kerbside. More spaces required.

The silver lining to this particular cloud is that it gave me chance to realise that all the tickets I needed for the days events were still sitting on the kitchen table. Feeling stupid and annoyed in equal measure I headed back into Waterloo to catch the train home to collect them.

At Waterloo there are a group of ‘catchers’ sitting at the assistance desk. Their role is to catch your cry for help and summon a ramp wrangler to your aid. Clearly sometimes they don’t enjoy being trapped. One of the catchers that I see quite frequently, when the wrangler didn’t show up, grabbed his coat and set off with me to the platform. He explained on the way that he didn’t have his key to unlock the ramp, but we’d done this before so he knew I carry one always. Despite not having a radio he was still able to contact Richmond and make sure I was met. There was a certain symmetry provided by the fact that the train back was the same one I came in on.

Having picked up the tickets I set out again. The second time the journey was just as uneventful as the first time. In fact it was better in that the wheelchair space on the bus was free for me.

I’d planned my route quite meticulously as usual. What I stupidly hadn’t done is check how to get from the Scotland Yard bus stop to Scotland Yard itself. In the end I popped into an office and asked the receptionist for directions. It turns out the enormous building is hidden down a side street.

After the meeting I set off towards my next meeting at Portland Hall. My first problem was getting onto the Boris Bus. As so often happens the ramp deployed in to, not on to, the kerb. The problem was resolved by the Conductor who appeared as if by magic and yanked the ramp upwards just in time. Once more the triumph of brute force over technology.

Again I’d planned the route, and again my attention to detail was …. less than it should have been. I knew I needed to change buses at Trafalgar Square. I even knew which stop I needed. What I’d failed to do is look up where that stop was! I did try asking the conductor, but he was as clueless as I was. I did eventually find it by a combination of luck and good judgement in equal measure.

Of course Easter in London means tourists, lots of families with buggies, and sure enough when my bus arrived it was packed with buggies in the wheelchair space like some game of infant tetris. The driver did begin the process of asking them to move, but was very obviously relieved when I volunteered to catch the next one. I wouldn’t have done this if I’d known how long the next one would take to arrive.

Eventually, with a rising sense of panic, I joined the next bus that was even going in vaguely the right direction. I resigned myself to a short walk at the other end. Of course no good dead goes unpunished and my delay meant the bus got snarled up in the rush hour Regent Street traffic. Even after I got off I was caught in a jam, this time of dawdling shoppers and tourists who kept stopping to take selfies or veer into stores at the last moment. Needless to say more than one person will be nursing sore and scarred ankles tomorrow.

For once I knew exactly where I was heading but this didn’t help me. I arrived easily enough, but only to discover people loitering on the pavement and road outside. I discovered, through rumour, that the building had been evacuated. Other people were going in and speaking to reception, an option denied to me by a short flight of steps. Sensing my confusion, I suspect, a member of staff acted as my translator and conveyed messages to the receptionist. It transpired that flooding 24 hours previously had rendered the meeting room a swimming pool causing a change in venue. Don’t ask me why the convener hadn’t sent an e-mail. The new location? A 15 minute walk away in a hall I had not long walked right past. The irony is that the topic of the meeting was how to manage and motivate campaigners and activists. Perhaps it started with a practical demonstration on the importance of communication and I simply missed the subtlety.

Fortunately the next leg, later in the evening, to the South Bank by bus, went without a hitch. As so often transport in London works so much better when fewer people are trying to use it and there’s less traffic on the road.

The final leg was a late night train home. There is no official assistance at Waterloo after 9.45pm so I headed straight to the platform when I arrived. Although not an official ramp wrangler the train dispatcher was happy to help me board. He even provided me with the train head code (a unique number which identifies every train service) though he seemed surprised I should even know about it, let alone want it.

I was confident that, at that time of night, the message of my impending arrival might not get through. My solution was to phone them myself using the station managers number which I picked up a few years ago. Not that this helped. When we arrived at Richmond the platform was deserted and the guard had to assist me off.

So after a pretty poor day of delays, screw ups, 8 buses and four trains, the only actual transport problem I had was one missing ramp. The takeaway lesson, though, is most definitely don’t just plan the route.  Make sure I know where I’m walking/wheeling to.

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The Rules Followed


Richmond – Hammersmith – West Brompton – Return

It’s amazing what a difference the school holidays make, especially early in the morning. The bus, and the roads, were almost empty. Which would have made for a quick journey, except the very thoughtful driver kept insisting on pausing at each stop to make sure he kept to schedule.

Once we got to Hammersmith it was the same old, very depressing story. The bus arrived and the ramp failed, sticking it’s nose out into the fresh morning air but clearly decided it was too cold and wouldn’t go any further. The driver leapt out of the cab quickly to give it a good kick. It turns out he was not surprised by the failure. It had worked when he tested it at the garage (the first time I’ve ever had this confirmed) but he did admit that it had already had problems out on the road.

To his credit he did apologise to me, report the failure to the garage and let the following bus know to expect me. Exactly the set of actions proscribed by The Big Red Book, but so seldom followed.

The amazing thing is that the return journey was with the self same driver, though he was keen to point out, not the same bus. The failed bus had been (correctly) withdrawn from service. There must be 20 or more buses trawling up and down that route. What are the odds of getting the same driver? (a rhetorical question. Maths geniuses don’t need to work it out)

So really this proves that the processes can work, even if the bus should have been withdrawn quicker. The question therefore must be, why aren’t the processes followed more frequently?

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Sunday Situation Normal


Richmond – Kingston – Return

Another simple Sunday trip, except of course that it was Easter weekend. Anywhere else in the UK this would mean little or no public transport but you’ve gotta love London. There weren’t even any engineering works on the rails. Not that this matters. Trains run so infrequently on Sundays as to be almost useless. Roll on TfL taking over the suburban rail network. Until then, buses will suffice.

The great thing was that the most notable thing about this four bus trip was that I managed to avoid the rains of the oncoming Storm Katie. Well, almost. I got caught in a downpour between the last bus and my front door, but better to get soaked going home than when you’re heading out.

But this is a blog about transport, and since the only thing to mention was a brief negotiation to share the wheelchair space with a buggy, then I’m going to let you get on with your regular scheduled activities.

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Buttons and Buggies


Richmond – Waterloo – Brixton – Return

I’ve said before that I’m not a great timekeeper. Mostly it’s not my fault. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it. So today it wasn’t my fault that I missed the first bus which meant I arrived on the station platform as the train arrived. There were no staff on the platform and the office door was locked, but the very nice guard saw me and walked, unhurriedly, along the platform to get the ramp. The station ramp wrangler did appear in time to put the ramp away, but the train still departed late.

The rest of the trip to Brixton was predictable, including the fact that the bus door got stuck and needed my PA to push the emergency release button. The driver seemed impressed that we knew that this was needed, and how to do it. Maybe it’s just me this happens to?

The bus back had a buggy in the (too small) wheelchair space. She was happy enough to move to let me on and, after some persuasion, the driver let her stand between the seats with the buggy for a couple of stops until she got off.

All in all another reasonably uneventful trip. It occurred to me that this trend of fewer incidents might be because more disabled people are travelling, a thought triggered after I came across another bus using wheelchair at Richmond. I’m really encouraged by this, so long as everyone understands that I always get priority!

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The Bus Replacing The Bus Replacing The Train


Richmond – Clapham Jct – Earlsfield – Return

Somehow I got involved with starring in a film about web accessibility for W3C and ended up travelling to a leafy suburb of Earlsfield. This seemed at first glance to be straightforward. But it’s always worth looking harder. Then looking again, just in case you missed something. Like I did.

I started, as always, by planning ahead and checking the station information on the National Rail website for Earlsfield. Great, full step free access. I then went to look at the detailed station plan. No lifts anywhere, just lots of stairs. Don’t you just love websites that contradict themselves. I threw caution to the wind and decided to rely on a spot of good fortune.

I set off on the bus, with one of the regular, friendly drivers (What a piece of junk) I’d left plenty of time, but he helpfully pointed out, as we got stuck in traffic, that there was rugby on at Twickenham. The five minute trip took nearly fifteen which meant I missed the train. This gave the ramp wrangler enough spare time to remind me of a spanner in the works that I’d forgotten. Engineering work meant that there were no trains running through Earlsfield. I debated giving up and going home, but decided to test South West Trains provision of an accessible replacement bus service.

I got to Clapham and was sent to the entrance where the buses were running from. As I reached platform one, part of the step free route to the exit, a helpful member of staff called me over to ask which train I was after. When I told him I was going to the exit he looked me right between the eyes and told me to go along the platform and down the stairs!

Thanking him politely I ignored him completely and went to find the lift.

The entrance could only be described as chaos. The three staff members propping up the wall were fending off an endless stream of “Where do the buses go from?” type questions, asked not 20 feet from a queue of people slowly and calmly boarding a coach. Sometimes you just have to admire the patience of staff serving the great unwashed public.

My arrival in a wheelchair clearly threw them. One of the three, I assume the most senior, took charge and informed me I was stuffed. He was of course much more polite than that, but that was definitely the message. The replacement service was using coaches and old buses, none of which were accessible. I pressed on and asked for a taxi. He didn’t actually refuse, but he was decidedly reluctant. At this point his colleague helpfully suggested the 77 bus. A fine idea, except I had no idea where to go to catch it. The third member of the trio, Jean, turned my day around by offering to take me to it. She was brilliant, not only taking me through the station and out to the row of bus stops, but checking each one until she was sure I was in the right place. If only all staff had this level of service ethic.

I made it to Earlsfield, and the shoot only 40 minutes late. I would have made better time but the pavements were awful. Leafy suburbs mean trees, trees mean roots, roots mean bumps and potholes which really slow down progress unless you want to be bounced unceremoniously out of the chair.

On the return trip I took the opportunity to pop into the closed station. Apart from really freaking out the staff member in the ticket office who thought I wanted to catch a train, I did learn that yes, there are lifts to the platform. Useful to know, but I don’t think I’ll ever go there again.

Going back through Clapham I saw Jean again, helping some other poor soul. Clearly she was having a busy day, but seemed to be happy and gave me a cheery wave.

It’s useful to be reminded that all over the transport network, buses, tube and trains, there are some really caring, thoughtful staff. Especially important to remember when you’re faced with an obstreperous jobsworth.

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Shooting Fish


Richmond – Teddington – Return

WARNING – Contains language that some people might find offensive.

Others may just be offended that inaccessible buses continue to roam the streets of the capital.


It’s so easy to see bus drivers as a barrier to accessible transport rather than an enabler. Social media is full of stories of drivers who don’t stop, won’t let wheelchairs on or don’t ask buggies to move. I’ve certainly got my fair share of horror stories and war wounds, but it’s important to remember that there are lots of drivers out there who are every bit as engaged with the principle and practise of accessible travel as we are.

I don’t honestly remember much of the journey out. It was dull, damp, miserable and way too early in the morning. Nothing went wrong so it’s best forgotten.

The return journey is best forgotten for exactly the opposite reasons. Let me be clear. I don’t set out to break buses. Honestly I don’t. Much thought has gone into designing reliable, accessible buses and maintaining them in working order (Stop sniggering at the back!) There usually has to be a combination of things go wrong for a ramp to fail, and usually they fail in such a way that the bus keeps going even if I can’t get on. Usually it’s actually quite rare to really break a bus.

Other days it’s like shooting fish in a barrel.

The first sign of trouble was the bus only had one door. Only really old buses in London have one door.

All London buses have the ramp built in underneath the bus so that it slides out (hopefully) and back in again. Or so I thought. I was wrong. The second sign of trouble was that the ramp on this bus folded out.

As soon as it unfolded the third sign of trouble was glaringly obvious. I could see so much filth and debris in the mechanism that you could have grown a good crop of potatoes in there.

Optimistically I boarded the bus. The advantage with one door buses is that they have a wheelchair AND a buggy space. Luxuriating in the space to move I settled in for the journey. The driver retracted the ramp.

It didn’t close. He tried again. and again, and again. I lost track of how many times. “Sorry folks” said the driver stating the blindingly obvious “the ramp won’t close.”

People started to drift off the bus, or make sympathetic noises towards me. The driver gave up trying, stood on the pavement and called control.

“This piece of shit I’ve been assigned. It’s broken down. The ramp is stuck…(pause).. yes, I could force it, but then how would I get the gentleman in the wheelchair off again? ..(pause).. exactly. Now get someone out here quick, I’m blocking the worst bus stop ever”

He then came back and for the next ten minutes we had a fascinating conversation during which he was much too honest and frank. His opinions on both the accessibility of buses and the quality of drivers were ones that I could only agree with. Training, or lack of it is key. He also shared some crew room secrets about the testing (or not) of ramps before leaving the depot and management’s refusal to allow ramp testing when a driver takes over a bus en route.

After 15 minutes the next bus arrived. The driver came to find out what was going on, but before he even got to the door shared his opinion loudly with the world in general “Oh Christ, what a piece of junk”

Given that the bus stop was filled with a bus he generously pulled further down the road to let me on, after a little gentle persuasion from the first driver.

Of course, given the previous broken bus, every stop we came to had a queue of people waiting, including a buggy at one stop. The driver wasn’t going to let her on, but after I volunteered, loudly, she joined the bus and slipped in the space behind me. If drivers were more willing to be flexible, where there’s space, it would go a long way to reducing the buggy/wheelchair battle.

Just to cap the story, as we stopped to pick up passengers in Twickenham, the ‘piece of junk’ drove past, empty and I assume heading to the depot, do not pass go, do not collect £200.

Another one bites the dust? Here’s hoping.

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