Flash Says…

Posts Tagged ‘london underground

My last blog post drew a few comments to which I wanted space so I could respond in full. So here we are! Tilly and others, here are my responses to your questions including why I don’t carry the Step Free Guide, why I didn’t know about the maintenance, and so on.

Firstly I should say that Transport for London have called me. They were apologetic and recognised that being unable to access the tube step-free at Paddington in the usual manner kicked off a chain of events which went from bad to worse, which could not have been predicted (a bus driver who trapped me in the door, a taxi driver who blatantly took the piss out of me) but were not acceptable. They have said they will learn lessons from my experience. However, there were some good questions raised by readers…

Why don’t I travel with a copy of the Step Free Guide to hand?

I don’t like the Step Free Guide. It contains lots of information I don’t need. If I’m travelling between two or three stations, on a trip I’ve made several times a year, I don’t need to check the access – it’s only useful when planning a route that you’ve never done before. In terms of carrying a printed copy, it wouldn’t have told me about the maintenance (and I wouldn’t have had room for it in my small under-chair box in which clothes were rolled up and secured with a rubber band and so on to ensure everything fitted neatly – it runs to several pages when printed legibly).

What about using Journey Planner to check your trip beforehand?

What, every time? How about when I travel between one accessible station and another, should I really check that they still exist?

Even the caller from Transport for London agreed that Journey Planner is really aimed at people who don’t know the route they will take, and need to look it up. This doesn’t apply to me as a regular traveller, on a route I’ve taken many times before. And in any case I was visiting my mother’s house where there is no phone signal – I’d have needed to consult Journey Planner before I left London a few days previously – at which point the maintenance hadn’t begun and wouldn’t have shown up when I checked!

Had I known about the maintenance preventing me from accessing the tube at Paddington, I wouldn’t have had many more choices. I could have known in advance about the bus trip, and got going sooner rather than spending time exploring options and then needing to rest. That in turn might have meant I didn’t end up on the tube at a busy time, although as my account shows, the tube (when I could get on it) was the least of my worries.

I couldn’t have prevented the need for the bus trip, but when I realised (earlier that day) that I was exhausted, I could perhaps have rung ahead for a minicab. Then again, who’s to say any of them would have quoted less than £42?

However, it would certainly have helped to know about the maintenance in advance and so I would argue that Transport for London needs to do a better job in that regard.

I think TfL needs to do better with their publicity. The previous week, I’d been on the tube recording a trip for Radio 4. We were particularly paying attention to announcements, signage, advice given etc. and there was nothing warning me that there would be no access to Circle and District lines at Paddington for a month. Similarly on day, other than at Paddington there were no signs and the staff said TfL had given them very little and “most of what you see, we did ourselves”. Later, on the tube part of my journey, which included the circle line, I still didn’t see any signage about this.

Perhaps there also needs to be a more permissive policy about providing black cabs for disabled people who are stuck because of maintenance. Current policy is that where one bus route runs between the closed station and the next accessible station, the traveller should use that. Otherwise, London Underground should lay on a black cab for them. In my case I could get a single bus, but I was then a) exhausted from the act of getting uphill to the bus stop b) running late because the bus takes so long c) travelling through an area I didn’t know, so I wasn’t sure when to get off. If TfL won’t lay on a black cab to the next accessible station then perhaps they should lay on a direct shuttle bus, so nobody has to fret about which bus stop to use or how to know when they’ve arrived, and the travel time isn’t extended by too much.

Like everyone else, disabled people want to travel. Sometimes they won’t know the route and will look it up online, at other times they will be very familiar with the journey and will just set out, expecting to complete it. Wayne Trevor, Accessibility and Inclusion Manager for London Underground told me (for Radio 4) that they expect disabled people to know they will face additional challenges and to plan their journeys, which is fine up to a point. But what if I want to be spontaneous? I could just jump on a tube to join my husband for dinner after work, or to see friends. I live in London and there are certain routes that I travel regularly and would never dream of checking every single time I set out – assuming that I had internet access at the time.

London Underground needs to provide better publicity for their maintenance so that we can avoid getting stuck in the first place, but also a more flexible black cab policy if someone shows up, exhausted and stranded.

A simple change to a regular journey can reduce a confident traveller to nothing. That’s what happened to me when my train pulled into Paddington this week – and I ended up exhausted and on the verge of tears just from trying to get home. Transport for London, what went wrong?

I turned up at Paddington expecting to take my usual route home (onto Circle / District line, change to Hammersmith & City line at Edgware Road, change to Central Line at Mile End, arrive at Stratford, taxi from there), and this is a good route as although there are 2 changes there is a long rest in the middle.

On arrival at the tube station I was told access to the Circle and District line had closed 2 days previously, and there was no accessible alternative. This was apparently planned maintenance, but I hadn’t seen it advertised anywhere while travelling the previous week, and nor had friends – so it took me completely by surprise.

I asked the staff for a copy of the Step Free Guide so I could plan an alternative route, but nobody had a copy.

One helpful chap (Ben) rang up his manager for me to see if they could authorise a taxi home for me, as has happened before when my usual route was closed. Sheepishly he told me he’d “got an earful” for asking and said he’d been instructed that I should get on the Bakerloo line. This has a long and steep escalator. I took one look and said no way! Ben offered to hold my wheelchair on the escalator but I was having a bad day with my knees and didn’t think I could stand up safely, all the way to the bottom.

I sat briefly in the concourse and rested. It was now 45 minutes since my train had pulled in, and I should have been nearly home by now. I talked to my friends on twitter:

District & Circle lines closed for a month at Paddington. No alternative step free route home! Was told to take big escalator in my chair(!)

I genuinely feel stranded, don’t know what to do. And phone nearly out of juice.

So that left me trying to get a minicab home; I went to Station Reception at Paddington where the Network Rail staff were very kind and let me use their phone. I tried 6 minicab companies and no luck except for one which MIGHT arrive in half an hour, charging £42 (was he joking? I paid £27 for the same journey last week).

This left me no option but to get the bus to Kings Cross and pick up the tube from there; but I wasn’t sure I had the energy to propel myself out of the station uphill to the bus stop. I was already tired and my journey had yet to begin! Still, seeing the bus approaching gave me the incentive I needed to push hard, so I could get on board and rest as soon as possible.

The bus stopped and I pressed the button for the ramp to be released. Nothing happened. I ended up pressing the button four times before the doors opened – but no ramp! So I got my feet on board, and dragged my chair up the step into the bus behind me, at which point the driver slammed the doors closed onto my chair. With me in it. Nice.

I was released, although the bus promptly pulled away while I was still manoeuvring into the wheelchair bay, wheee! Plus I was now facing backwards into the bus with no knowledge of where I was. The visual descriptor was above my head and for some reason the audio announcements were off. I had to rely on other passengers to let me know when we arrived at Kings Cross.

Fortunately those same passengers advocated my presence to the driver, and the ramp was put down so I could leave the bus. I now had to push myself to the underground station, negotiate two lifts and a passageway, but I boarded the tube with no trouble – other than having hit rush hour thanks to all the delays and diversions. This meant that the tubes were crowded and people tripped over me, stuck in the vestibule / doorway space with nowhere else to go.

At Stratford I was SO pleased to arrive, now all I had to do was get a taxi home. I waved my taxicard and was directed to the first Com Cab in line, where I said “Don’t worry about the ramp, I can get out and we can lift it in.” The driver turned to two others and said in a mocking voice “Ooh, we can get out apparently”. So I got in the taxi and said “please can you be careful when you lift my chair, there’s a box underneath…” to which the response to his fellow drivers was “Ooh, there’s a BOX underneath!” This mocking continued with everything I said. Eventually I burst out “PLEASE just LISTEN!” and he turned to his friends saying “Oh, got to LISTEN, that’s what YOU’ve got to do…” I just said “No – YOU!” then gave up and sat back (trying not to cry, well, it had been a bad day).

After a bit more banter with his mates, my driver became bored, lifted my chair into the taxi, and entered the driving seat. I asked “Why is the meter up to £3.80 already when we haven’t gone anywhere?” His reply: “because it took so long to load you”. I was speechless.

Ten minutes later I arrived home and could collapse – not relax – for a while. Two days later I am still feeling the exhaustion in my limbs, and an amplification to my aches and pains. I had planned for a routine tube journey, but thanks to un-advertised maintenance, I ended up with a terrible trip, pushing myself further than expected, and taking an extra two hours to get home.

Thanks friends, I’m fine, just REALLY exhausted. Had a bus driver shut his doors on me, heaving tubes, then a taxi driver who laughed at me.

I am so exhausted I feel like bursting into tears, am also furious about my journey home, everything hurts, angry letter to TfL coming soon.

I wonder what Transport for London will say in response? Watch this space.

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 Bristow and Peter White Journey planner screenshotFlash 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).