It’s the way you tell ’em
This week, Transport for All announced an investigation into the accessibility of London’s transport network. The results should be enlightening, if my recent experience is anything to go by.
Last week I went out with Peter White, the presenter of Radio 4’s ‘You and Yours’, to see if disabled access on London Transport is improving as the Olympic and Paralympic Games grow nearer. It’s a journey we’ve made several times, from Heathrow to Stratford, as if we were arriving tourists. Peter is blind, and I was in my wheelchair, so between us we were able to identify any stumbling blocks.
We started out on the Heathrow Express, a wonderful train which has a sill outside the door, minimising the gap between train and platform – I could wheel straight on and off. Is this the only train in Britain where I don’t need to call for a ramp? I hope it’s a sign of things to come.
On arrival at Paddington, we needed guidance for which way to travel. Although this was the fourth trip I’d undertaken with Peter, we’d used a different route every time. On this occasion I’d been to Transport for London’s website, and used their journey planner. I’d selected “I can’t use stairs” “I can’t use escalators” and “I need wheelchair accessible vehicles”; the route offered was a bus from Paddington to Kings Cross, then onto the tube taking the Hammersmith and City line to Mile End, with a final change onto the Central line bringing us to Stratford. Armed with this information, we boarded a bus to Kings Cross.
Flash and Peter, and a Journey Planner screenshot
London buses are fairly easy to access – you press a button and the driver will put out the ramp for you. I boarded safely, some tourists moved their luggage from the wheelchair bay, and off we went. At one stop I was shouted at by a woman who wanted to bring a baby buggy on board but refused to fold it – unfortunately there isn’t room to share and wheelchairs have priority. The journey passed well, with regular announcements from the “talking buses” system letting Peter know where we were. Incidentally if you think “Talking buses” are a good idea and you’d like to see them across the UK, do ask your MP to sign Early Day Motion 12.
At Kings Cross, we made our way to the Underground. The station is a bit of a maze but the signage was good and we worked out which lifts we needed to take, however the lifts did not announce all the destinations so Peter was confused as to whether we were in the right ones!
It was at this point that we hit upon the first, and major, hurdle. The arriving train had a floor six inches above the platform. I am lucky – I can get out of my wheelchair, lift it onto the train, and get back in, but it is painful, and many people will not be able to do this. I would not count this train as a “wheelchair accessible vehicle”!
In fact, I always check the gap height on the Direct Enquiries website, but would a visitor know to do this? London Underground Inclusion Manager Chris Upfold had been travelling with us, and pointed out that when I used their journey planner, under the mobility options is a link “For station access details click here” which I have never noticed. Well, at that point I am looking for which options to select, and promptly tick them, waiting for the journey planner’s recommendations. Even if I had seen the link there is no way to select “I can only use stations with a gap of under 2 inches between the train and the platform” – so how would I have been able to generate a route which truly did meet my needs? The step up to the train was a problem again when interchanging at Mile End, and on arrival at Stratford.
There are other ways of finding out about wheelchair access on the Underground, as there is a special “Step free guide”. This is a regular tube map, where step-free stations (i.e. those with no steps between platform and exit, or at interchange) are indicated by a green, amber or red letter A, B or C. This relates to the vertical and horizontal gaps between train and platform. Firstly, a traffic light system is not much use if you are colourblind! The small print does tell you the gap in millimetres, but it is VERY small print. The only way this would be legible to someone with visual impairment is if they can magnify it, as the physical printed map really does give eyestrain. Online, the map is only presented as a PDF (which is inaccessible to some adaptive software) so a text guide would have been useful. See how confusing it is for yourself on TfL’s website.
The regular map tube map features wheelchair symbols at step free stations, but what do they mean? I’d assume they indicate that I can access the tube at those stations in a wheelchair, when in reality I would find the gap between train and platform prohibitive and realise I was stuck.
It is clear that there is still some way to go to improve access to the Underground, but perhaps the focus of this work should be upon providing a single coherent system through which I can plan a route and receive all the information that I need. Until that time, disabled visitors will continue to struggle in from A to B – via a red coloured C? – in London.
Flash’s feature is due to be broadcast on You and Yours on Wednesday 9 June (12-1pm, Radio 4 and online).