Flash Says…

Posts Tagged ‘transport for london

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.

I raised my hand to speak. “I was really excited about viewing the new Routemaster today, showing off to my friends that I’d seen it – but having been in it, I’m really upset. I just feel that I’m not going to be able to use this bus, and that makes me so sad.”

I’d been one of a lucky few to have a look around the “New bus for London”, along with other disabled people, thanks to Transport for All, and of course our hosts Transport for London (TfL) at their Acton Museum depot.

Flash in the driving seatThe tour got off to a great start as we surveyed the outside of the bus. The exterior is beautiful, with round eye-like running lights, and a glass swoosh along the stairwell which will let in plenty of light and make the space feel bigger and safer. We were talked through several innovative features, such as bonded windows, light weight materials, and a focus on clean, low energy use. Most ingenious is the way that the back platform is open while there’s a second staff member on board, but it can be converted back to operate as a regular door under driver control as necessary.

Then, as we were admitted inside the bus, my excitement and optimism fell away. It quickly became clear that in order to accommodate the iconic rear platform, the interior is full of compromises. Seats in the back half of the bottom deck are high up, as they are above the wheels and other mechanical parts. The step to those seats is equivalent to me stepping up onto my sofa – something a small child will not be able to do, nor people with knee or hip problems. There are some level-access seats around the middle door by the wheelchair bay, but even these pose problems.

Transport for London representatives told us that they wish to have 10 seats on the level floor area. Therefore, five benches were squeezed into place – and the first thing I noticed is that all of them have something immediately in front, be it a barrier (by the door), another seat, or the wheelchair bay. This leaves nowhere that someone would be able to sit with their legs extended even partially – a problem for many ambulant disabled people. I asked what would happen for someone who cannot bend their knee, or who has a leg in plaster to which the reply was “how often would someone in plaster get the bus anyway?” I found this a flippant response; when I was once in plaster from the top to bottom of my leg, I carried on with my daily life. In any case, there are many conditions which mean it is painful and difficult for people to bend their knees. When I use my stick to get about I need to keep my legs out in front of me while I am seated. Why should I be forced to use my wheelchair if I want to travel on this bus – when there might be steps at my destination? Several of us suggested removing certain seats, perhaps rotating them through 90 degrees, or replacing them with flip down seats, but this would break TfL’s magic number of 10 seats – something that is not realistic given the limited space available.

The new Routemaster mocquetteThe level-access seat positions exposed another problem – it was nearly impossible to manoeuvre into the wheelchair bay. We were assured that the space met “minimum standards” but it seemed pretty small to me, and this was aggravated by the position of poles, intended to ensure the wheelchair is contained safely within the bay. In order to move into the bay I first had to push right into a row of seats – if anyone had been sitting there, they would have had to move into the aisle. Then I attempted to reverse into the bay, but due to the position of a pole which trapped me, I had to make something like a 7 point turn in order to finally fit within the bay – by which time, a real bus would have driven off! I lent my chair to a member of TfL staff so he could see how hard it was to access the bay – so he would realise that we were not just picking holes but that even in an “active user” wheelchair (one of the smallest types) – there simply was not enough space.

TfL have already accepted that they would need to alter the poles, but realistically they will need to take out the bench behind the wheelchair bay as well – throwing their ideal of 10 level-access seats out of the window.

As for meeting the minimum standard for bay size – that’s not enough! This Routemaster is branded “A new bus for London”. It is supposed to be revolutionary – leading the way in design and setting the bar for others to copy. I had dared to hope that it might have room for two wheelchair users, so that I could go out with a friend. Instead, I am concerned that it will struggle to accommodate just one of us. It is a bus full of compromises which is in danger of suiting nobody.

If this is the future, I’m disappointed. I had hoped that this would be a Routemaster style bus that I could access, but as it stands I don’t feel I could use it, and that has left me upset.

Of course, I’m grateful to TfL for allowing us access and for testing their bus with real people; they have heard us, and now it’s over to them to make changes. I’d be happy to work with them to find a solution, and I hope I’m invited back when they’ve worked out a better way to include disabled travellers.

View the inside of the bus (showing 8 of the 10 level-access seats) on the Guardian website. The two photos above are by Mike Bristow.