The Feng Shui of the Class 321 equilibrium

On Friday 16 December, I was invited to join Greater Anglia aboard a newly refurbished class 321 trainset.  This unit in particular has been internally refreshed to meet the needs of the 21st century customer.  Built in the 1980s using the Mk3 bodyshell, there has been very limited redesign of the internal layout… until now.

My own experience has shown me that a clean vehicle can hide a multitude of sins, so I was keen to have a good crawl all over to identify the pitfalls I could – not to shame, instead to seek rectification and improve the new product further.  I believe in quick wins, too – usually the simplest improvement can be the cheapest and best.

For me, as a wheelchair user, the door I should was obvious from the traditional blue symbols – what awaited me was anything but traditional.  Once on board, I had a choice of turning left into the central saloon, or right to the carriage end and a space beside the lavatory.  Let me emphasis that word again a moment: choice.

Daddydoink in the wheelchair spaceThe space is at the minimum the standard dimensions and is slightly larger in the central saloon.  In both cases there are several tip-up seats available, both also with a fold-away table.  Yes, you read that correctly – a table.  This is invaluable, especially if you get hand shake or need to be able to put your sandwich down a moment.  The table would take a seat out of availability and can only be used if the seat is empty.  Opposite the wheelchair space beside the toilet is a luggage space, big enough for two large cases or eight small, laid flat.  There are seats opposite (proper seats) for friends and family, meaning friends no longer have to give up a tip-up seat for another wheelchair user.  There is a choice between sitting next to the toilet or not.

Toilet door entrance with no lipThe toilet is a standard loo, with both a toilet bowl and a sink.  There is a baby change table and a multitude of signs warning and instructing as to the use of various buttons.  The entrance has no lip (and therefore is a level ingress/egress).  The buttons are clear and the labeling is due to be improved to be clear that unlocking the door opens it, too.  Moving from a train with no loo to this is a huge step forward (or not, as there is no step).

The doors come with audio warnings and buttons at a decent height.  The width of the vestibules has expanded by over 6 inches, giving additional space to both wheelchair users and fellow passengers.  The grab poles that previously restricted access have been moved closer to the vehicle walls and further apart, giving over a meter of space for wheelchairs to get through.

The seats are now higher off the floor and have a good angle between the seat and back for a comfortable journey.  This means it will be easier for an ambulant disabled person to stand from them.  There are grab handles at nearly every seat.

All of this means a journey is very possible.  A journey can be a very emotional thing for a disabled person, too.  By making this easier, with better wheelchair spaces, more priority seats, higher seats – the emotions are positive ones.

This train is not a case of too little, too late.  It’s a case of benchmarking what can be achieved, with the life of this train now extended beyond 2020.  The re-traction project will only extend that life further.

The question is, who’s going to follow suit and copy this brilliant bit of work?  And for Greater Anglia, what is the next good idea?

Photos below – for use please contact me via twitter or a comment.

Refurbished Class 321 – Greater Anglia

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The Impaired Human Flight Principle

I’m incredibly fortunate to sometimes be invited out to events that interest me with my hobbies once in a while that also interlink with work.  Today was one of those days, when I got an email two or so weeks ago inviting people to join them for a Stansted Airport PRM (Passengers with Restricted Mobility) Day, undertaken with Omniserve.  The idea of the day is for you to ask questions, have a poke about and discover what the airport is able to offer a customer who needs a little bit more help than where their gate might be.

Bruce was able to give clear answers to those there

Bruce was able to give clear answers to those there

So, with my passport and a bit of information about where to park, I went off for the day.  Meeting everyone at the terminal assistance desk, we were ably led by Bruce and Sheila (see the naming policy) through to security, armed with visitors passes and our passports.

I’ve only been through security once at Stansted before and the last time was at about 7:00, half asleep.  So this was quite a good experience for me.  A male security guard gave me a good check over in a thorough and efficient manner whilst making sure the airport was not at risk.  It took all of 5 minutes or so and I was through and free to collect my camera, phone and laptop.

Ambi-lift

Ambi-lift

We moved through the newly laid out retail and restaurant areas – there is a lot of work going on at the moment, all evidence of the huge investment of over £80M by the Manchester Airport Group. Sheila and Bruce took us along to stand 50, where an ambi-lift (think – box on the back of a truck with scissor lift) was waiting… along with a Boeing 737-800, courtesy of Ryanair.

Bruce showed us how the ambi-lift process worked.  Provided by Omniserve (a contracted service provider), the system enables passengers who are PRM to access the plane from the terminal.  Usually a passenger is assisted out on to the apron, where the ambilift has a tail lift to raise the passenger to access the “box” on the back of the truck.  The box then lifts and a front “bridge” extended to the aircraft.  Whilst in the box, you transfer to an aisle chair and then are lifted into the cabin.

Discussing needs onboard

The whole process can be done in minutes and has a variety of tools available, including hoists, slings and transfer boards to help a customer get on the plane.

After the aircraft, we went through the arrivals process, looking at the route in through arrivals and exiting on to the forecourt.

Two hours has now passed – a lot to take in already.  A short break and then we had some presentations from Bruce and Clive from Omniserve as well as Mick from Manchester Airport Group.  It was rather interesting, learning that about 20% assistance requests are ad-hoc every month, for example.  Clive, who leads on the training programme for Omniserve, made it clear that the Social Model of Disability is at the core of the Equality Awareness Training.  He made no bones about not having all the answers, citing the need to keep relevant and use outside sources to improve and expand their training. It was also very evident that the training goes beyond a wheelchair or person having no vision.  It’s customer focused, knowing about both visible and hidden disabilities, including mental health and learning disabilities.  It was incredibly refreshing to hear someone ‘get it’ without having to be prompted to churn out the answers like a machine.

Mick then presented on behalf of Stansted.  He gave a true and frank explanation of some of the challenges faced when looking at improving the facilities on offer.  It was good to hear that the first consideration is not always the cost – inconvenience when replacing existing solutions, meaning customers may have a longer journey from point to point, for example, takes a central focus.  Wayfinding is a huge issue and has been centralised to remove the mix of signage as well as the development of a Wayfinding Strategy.  He also made it clear that although 80% of the existing issues were resolved, there was a hunger to get the other 20%.  Growing their market is crucial to their business strategy and to do that, it needs to be 100%.

Answering honestly and clearly, I really valued this Q&A session.  It wasn’t just lip-service – it was an open forum for potential and existing customers to learn, share and discover – building confidence to go and have positive experiences in the air.

If you get the chance to go and see one – I’d recommend it.

The Stamina Induction Experiment

EphedrineIt’s been about six months since I started taking some medication to assist with my stamina levels since re-diagnosis.  This drug is called Ephedrine Hydrochloride.  Sound familiar?  It should – it is used in asthma medication a lot.

It is little known though that if taken as a tablet it doesn’t just cover the lungs.  In my case, it acts as a stamina agent to encourage my nerves to communicate a little bit longer than they could if I didn’t take this medication.

What has this meant?  Well, now I can actually stay awake past 22:00 for one thing.  My speech doesn’t go as slurred as it once did when I hit a point of energy depletion in my day.  I am able to concentrate more.  I can coordinate some of my movements better.

Its given me a bit more quality of life that I didn’t have before.  It has made my life better because of minute changes.

Worth it?  Definitely.

The Petroleum Recharging Quandry

I have a bit of an issue and its not one that I can resolve easily on my own without either a bit of trial and serious error (if it goes wrong its a big error) or help.  So, I’ve opted for a bit of help:

Well, actually, that needed a little quick clarification, just in case:

So, this sparked a few conversations, including first cars, comparison of what I’m getting, toys, wheels and so on… but this also showed me several things:

  1. Some people use Service Call
  2. Some people use PinPoint
  3. Some people don’t use anything
  4. One person is waiting for their child to hit 16 so they can learn how to fill the car for them!

So what are Service Call and PinPoint?  They are remote keyfobs that send a signal to a receiver in a petrol station which would, in theory at least, alert a member of staff to assist you refuelling your car.

Service Call Receiver

Service Call Receiver

Service Call I had, I confess, heard of before but forgotten the name of.  It is usually a bright orange box on the window of the petrol station kiosk.  The box tends to sit up high and require line of sight in order to work which, according to the website, has 50m of range.

During my Twitter conversation, I found one user said the following:

Now that is useful in itself, but given the competition…

So, this then makes me ask a question of will I see more use of one more than another.  At this point my mother had already very kindly told me to order a PinPoint device for my birthday present which is upcoming (hint, hint you lot).

So – this seems like a good time to review the PinPoint offering.  This was developed by a company called Contacta and has been endorsed by Disabled Motoring UK, which is a campaign group.  It is not widely installed at the moment but claims to be more reliable than older beacon systems, which I suspect includes Service Call.  A quick check in my local area shows 2 installations, compared to Service Call’s 8 or so.  Neither of them included Tesco though, which is where I am most likely to fill up because of the pay at pump option and club card discounts.

Indeed, PinPoint is widely known:

So – I’ve ordered PinPoint with thanks to my Mother. I’ll probably end up ordering a Service Call too.  Alternatively, I could follow this idea:

Got a bit of a wait though until my eldest reaches 16 though…

 

The Mobility Powerhouse Examination

So, since new year I have been working on a personal challenge – one, if you will, that requires immense concentration and patience.

I have been educating myself in a skill that has required me to master all control, to be able to be calm in situations where I wish to scream profanities and above all else – remember the order in which I should do things.

Mirror.

Signal.

Manoeuvre.

In little under 7 weeks, I’ve had to master theory, learn about hazard perception… as well as the practical element of the brumming, the beeping and the screaming from the passenger seat.

As a disabled driver I’ve found the automatic fairly easy to come to grips with (i.e. don’t).  My teacher was quite patient with me and got me through all my manoeuvre’s, showing me useful tricks to making sure I knew what was going on all around me.  Above all though he also reminded me to maintain my confidence without being over-confident.

Now, the rest of my learning begins, just on my own.

The Disabled Persons Dilemma

On the day that the International Day for People with Disabilities is celebrated (A UN recognised date, no less), I want to share something with you from a wheelchair users perspective, a few jokes and observations.

mini-stigs-bwHave you got ‘L’ Plates?  Have you got a licence?  No speeding now! Hahaha. Oh how my sides split… except, they don’t.   Frankly, its ludicrous that I’d need ‘L’ plates when my three year olds can race my wheelchairs around the house and to suggest I might have a licence to walk about is as funny as you requiring a Shoe Lace Proficiency before being allowed to step out of the front door. 

Joking about my choice in mobility might make it feel acceptable to you, possibly even opening you an opportunity to talk to me and say hello, but I would like to offer an alternative: “Hi”.

On the other hand, it is very acceptable to note that my softroll front wheels look slick, or that you have suddenly noticed that the dark paintwork on my chair is green, not black.  It’s pushing the limits (but acceptable) to dream of having lights in your shoes like my old chair has in the front wheels.  (It’s not acceptable though to draw comparisons to your child’s scooter.)  It is fine to sympathise with my as to how cold my hands must get – I’m sure your digits freezing with be just as annoying for you, too.

Its ok to joke with me about the latest political gaff or bitch about the weather.  I am perfectly fine with your knee complaint – I don’t feel uncomfortable just because you are having trouble climbing stairs and I can’t.  I don’t even mind hearing how expensive it is to buy shoes – mostly because I can sympathise with these (especially the last one, being a tight fisted male!)

But I am more than a wheelchair – I am DaddyDoink.  I travel an hour each way to work on the train. I walk wheel down the hill to work each day.  I communicate in fair fluid English (exceptions apply).  I eat lunch. I socialise with colleagues.  I joke with them.  We discuss my growing bus habit.  I finish work at 5 and get the train home again.  But all this will be forgotten at the end of the day.

Especially if the thing that ground my gears the most was someone shouting “Got yer licence mate?!”

The Journal of a Transportation Human Trial

Planning a journey is hard enough – you have to know the times, then if you want to “guarantee” some help, book assistance – then find out how to book that assistance… its an endless stream of “how do I” and “where do I find out how to…”

Even if you know what to do there is the blind bit of faith you have to invest and hold there.  If you’ve had a bad experience before, this makes the journey before harder still.

Lets take my journey to Hampshire yesterday.  I was going to Havant for work. So, Wednesday night I phoned up the train booking system to book my journey outward – I didn’t know what time I’d be coming back though.  Book the journey – done.

Leaving my home station, they said they’d confirm to Stratford station where I was and that I was on-board.  Job done.  Or so I’d hope, as I arrived at Stratford and there was no one waiting to meet me.  Double whammy failure. Fortunately my manager, who was with me for his second taste of traveling á la Doink, helped me wheel off backwards. Note for Greater Anglia – it gets cold in the doorway of your old, 321 class stock. Really.

Next target for my own personal taste in fun was the Jubilee line to London Waterloo.  I had no problems with this line and scooted towards Waterloo.  There I did find a snag – the lift from Waterloo Road to Waterloo Concourse was out of action.  Fortunately there was a sign with a telephone number… and two “Metro” employees (venders) who were keen to shoe me away from their hiding hole.  Network Rail – take note please! 

Having summoned some help to get up to the concourse via the external route (the assistance people quite prompt – only 3 or 4 minutes in this case.) An aside, the reason for the lift closure I was told was that there was a cherry picker in the way. I am suspect of the truth of this but I reported it on twitter anyway. I then went to the desk, where the assistance service were expecting me and arranged for someone to provide a ramp to get on board my train – the 08:00 Waterloo to Portsmouth Harbour. 

class-444-paul-biglandThis was slightly interesting.  My train, a 10 car “444-Class” train, split at Guildford.  I needed to be in the front 5 carriages to continue on to Havant.  So, we went to the front, where the Network Rail employee had issues trying to get the ramp out of the cupboard.  It took a good 5-7 minutes and when you are trying to get on a specific train – too much time to allow for someone to run back and get a platform ramp. Another hint for Network Rail? Get more ramps at Waterloo.  We might be out of the Paralympics, but disabled people traveling are going to stay (or leave, actually).

The guard aboard the train (South West Trains) was very courteous – he made a call there and then to Havant to ensure that they were expecting me and explained there would be a guard change at Guildford.  This is good to see – it could be unsettling if the friendly face you had seen earlier disappeared.  Come Havant, the new guard knew where I was going too, the station staff were ready and waiting – I exited quickly.

Outward (APRS booked) journey score:
Greater Anglia: 1 (Clacton Staff) 0 (Stratford)
TfL: 2 (It just worked for once)
Network Rail: 1 (for the prompt assistance appearance), 0 for the lack of ramps
Southwest Trains: 2 (Friendly staff, Ramp being there at Havant).

My return journey though was not booked. I turned up at Havant at about 15:20 – not bad timing (if you don’t mind a bit of liquid sunshine). There were no staff anywhere in sight but there was a help point with two buttons: Information and Emergency.

Now, slap me round the face and call me Mr Silly if you like, but my wanting to get the next fast service to London Waterloo is not an emergency in my book. An emergency is, you know – blood, danger, etc. So, I got my mobile out and instead made a call that ended up in me getting through to Portsmouth and Southsea (don’t ask). Suddenly, as if by magic – a staff member appears!  He seemed a little put out that Portsmouth and Southsea had called him but never the less, assisted me on the train (a 450, for the nerds out there) and promised to phone Waterloo.

Another friendly guard – he checked tickets and promised to return for Waterloo.  A bike appeared on board at Guildford and the catering staff advised them where to park the bike in the future (designated spaces on SouthWest Trains). Come Waterloo, there were very friendly staff waiting with a ramp – the guard also appeared and was ready to go with a ramp.

Next up – a trip to Liverpool Street via Green Park and Kings Cross.  I headed (still with my manager, the poor bloke!) towards the lift. No cherry picker but the lift stopped halfway between levels and no sign. There was also an older lady and her companion looking disappointed. 

A quick call on their behalf – I was feeling ok to take myself down the wet, dusk ramps – to get someone to assist them downstairs and I rocketed off via the street to Waterloo Road and the tube. I wish to disclose that I did offer my manager the opportunity to use the escalator and keep dry. 

clear-liftOn the tube – bit busy on the Jubilee; Green Park was tremendous fun, if not full of lazy people using the lift (running for it and diving in is a give-away); and Kings Cross – ever a maze but people keeping left a bit more.

At Kings Cross, apologising again for the monster I become to Clive, he said “Doink, I admire the way you go for it in the tube, but if there is a next time, may I pay for a cab?”

Back to the journey – Met line to Liverpool Street and out – making the 18:12. A quick call on the phone to Alpha 6 and he met me on the platform to get me on my train home.  He called Colchester to alert the guard who boards there (its driver only until Colchester) and then before telling the driver as well. Impressed.

Apart from a small delay and a draught down the back of my neck (the twitter control room have since promised to knit me a scarf, hat and gloves. Not holding my breath.), I got home at 19:45, the depot driver grabbed the ramp before the guard could and I left.

Score for the journey home (unbooked):
SouthWest Trains: 1 (Friendly train staff but lost one for lack of staff at Havant)
Network Rail Waterloo: 1 (Promptly there at the train but the lift, no signs? Lost points there)
TfL: 1 point
Network Rail Liverpool Street: 2 Points (For phoning and telling the driver)
Greater Anglia: 1 Point (Would have been 2 but for the draught).

That was my journey. Sorry its so long. Ultimately – not a bad day. However, it highlighted some shortcomings that still should not have been there. Lifts – the thing I ever rely on – and staff. Or lack of, in this case.

I’d like to know though – has my feedback been acted on. Comments welcome, either those on those stations or from Network Rail and Greater Anglia themselves. I promise I won’t bite.

The Cylindrical Psychosis

I had to psych myself up.  Take a deep breath. Work out if it was the most economical route or the quickest route or whatever but would it get me there, problem free.

Its not going by foot path nor bus – its tube – an arch-nemesis of the wheelchair user.  I’m going to use 3 different lines, change at two stations – to get to my train home.

Its not an impossible task – but its one that takes a little bit of judgement, a little bit of thought and a chunk of confidence.  And attitude – one of those that says “f*** you to people in your way.

I wasn’t alone either – I had my manager with me, so I had to do this properly or apologise in advance to him for the monster I know I can turn into.

Waterloo to Liverpool Street, peak Friday night rush hour.  Waterloo – Green Park – Kings Cross – Liverpool Street.  Flat access. I knew I could do it – I just had to go for it.

I kicked off on the Jubilee Line westbound for Stanmore.  Two stops up to Green Park on a mildly busy train.  It was warm but bearable.  Step free, totally.  Off at Green Park and up in the lift, my aim next was the Victoria Line.  Wheeling (keeping right) up the uphill stretch in the interchange tunnel to turn left to exit and the lifts – downhill.  This is at first gentle – for 5 metres – then steep for 5, then long and reasonable for another 150 metres.  I did the only thing any lunatic would do – I said excuse me to clear a way and ran humming the brakes down hill, hitting an easy 8MPH as my chair was allowed to succumb to the lure of Law of Gravity.  The Xenon rolls so much more quieter, smoother, neater than the old Quickie Q2 HP, less of a thump as I hit the gap between the tiles on the floor.

Slam the brakes on, turn left, roll through to the lifts – my manager had thankfully kept up.  On to the Victoria Line – the first train crammed and jammed and the second train little better.  But I got the second train – able to get into the wheelchair space and park too, a miracle in itself, as most people are surprised to find a wheelchair user outside of the Jubilee Line, let alone on the tube.

Jump off (not literally – flat access again) at Kings Cross and switch to the Met.  Using the long tunnels, people keep walking 6 abreast and slowly, causing me to get fed up – something I have to live with until a gap opens and I can get moving again, my chair taking little effort to get to speed to enable me to move swiftly to the lift, taking it to the exit and out to go to the Circle, Northern and Met.  Masses of people, most of whom don’t know where they are going.  Through the ticket halls and into the CNM, pushing now to get to the platforms, holding a position and letting others make their mistakes of walking into my path – that pre-meditated aim for the lift which takes me the lines where a Met train for Aldgate is waiting.

I rolled on board.  These trains are new. Flat access. Air conditioning. Success.  I took it to Liverpool Street – success bound for me as I am one train away from being on my train home.  And it all looked so easily done, written down.

But the pre-meditation, planning, thought, mental cajoling to get there was totally invisible.  But it was there.  Took me all of half a second to know I would go for it.  It was a round about way to get from Waterloo to Liverpool Street – but I did it. 

One small roll for me – one giant wheelie for my kind.

I got to Liverpool Street, my journey spend admiring how I could see the length of the train start to finish and rolled off, out and up the short slope to head for the exit gates – my train 10 minutes away and leaving me enough time to get something to eat and book my assistance onwards.

Proof too, that I have a new choice open to me instead of a bus or taxi.  Just like many others.

The Mercutio Analysis

Anguish and pain filled me yesterday whilst I was sat on the sofa, my faithful steed sat on its haunches (yes, it has haunches) beside me waiting to jump into action, when I discovered a fairly deep scratch of painful proportions.

Bearing in mind that this wheelchair is still very new (especially for me) and something that I want to really look after, this scratch on the Xenon hit me like a knife to the chest. 

After blaming all and sundry, I look a close look only to see that this deep mark holds all the hallmarks of my cursed enemy – doors. Its height is perfect to match up to a kick plate.  The cut could only have been achieved with metal on metal contact, like the stuff they make in Port Tybalt Talbot.

Having discussed this issue with fellow chair users online, I think I am off to Halfords for a touch up paint kit for a car… because Sunrise don’t do them for the wheelchair.  I can’t help but feel a trick was missed there.  Although I’ll get it out, I’ll always know it was there though.  Battle scars and all.

The Inter-Departmental Policy Ball Tournament

It has been brought to my notice that the Department for Transport are contributing to the Government’s “Disability Strategy – Fulfilling Potential” with its own disability action plan, to be produced by the Summer of 2012.  The aim is “to address some of the concerns that have been raised on transport for disabled people in documents like RADAR’s guide “Doing Transport Differently” and the Trailblazer’s Transport Report “End of the Line”.

They are organising a small workshop and have invited representatives from groups but concede that there will be no consultation nor will there be any involvement from stakeholders who do not regularly connect with such access groups – disabled people who are usually living their lives as parents, employees and socialites – and might not have the time nor the interest in the ins and outs going on around them – such examples might be a disabled student attending full time college and not in contact with social services or a disabled parent who can get themselves out and about and doesn’t interact with other disabled people or the organisations who represent their disability.

Because of this, the Department for Transport has said that disabled people are welcome to email them what they perceive to be:

  • The gaps that need to be addressed by the public transport industry
  • The priorities and practical solutions for an inclusive transport system

You can email these in bullet points to: elena.barcan@dft.gsi.gov.uk.  When emailing, please outline your disability and how it affects you as well as your method of mobility – wheelchair, cane user, guide dog, companion dog, walking stick, etc…

The idea is to give her the problems that you face in terms of the issue and how it prevents you from travelling – an example:

  • Lack of level access on rail station platforms to train
    • Prevents me from boarding independently
    • Makes me reliant on a member of staff
    • Prevents me from disembarking independently
    • Makes me reliant on someone else advising my destination of my impending arrival

Their deadline for this is around the 1st May.