The history of design thesis

Testing a wheelchair spaceEverything we do becomes history, however significant might be to ourselves or to each other – a legacy, if you will. I’ve had several opportunities in my work to do this in the past through partnerships that we have. One particular partnership is with a rail operator. I received an email in December from a colleague I’ll call Sheila.

The email asked the following:

  • Do I have a passport?
  • Do I fly?

If the answer was yes, then I was to phone my colleague immediately. I did so and after establishing that 29 seconds from clicking send is immediately, I was invited to travel to Switzerland with the company to help with the design input of the new trains for a franchise. I wasn’t to be alone – a colleague with sensory needs had also been invited. The brief was clear – to look at the proposals for people with mobility and sensory needs to identify if they are appropriate. We were invited look for any improvements that can be made to further offer a better experience to customers. Our lived and professional experiences were key to our visit, to assist with the design proposals and offer our constructive thoughts.

A FLIRT train in Konstanz, GermanyThe new trains, which are of a new type to the UK, are made by Stadler and will be in service for the next 20-30 years. The trains (called FLIRT) are commonplace in Europe and now are coming to the UK. The new trains will have 3 different applications – airport, intercity and regional. The airport and intercity stock share one design and the regional trains another.

Arriving at the factory in Bussnang in the morning, we were introduced to the rolling stock types, which will be for the intercity, airport and regional trains. There are two types of wheelchair area, with the intercity and airport trains able to carry three wheelchair users in their chairs and the bi-mode regional trains carrying two wheelchair users. A mock up had been prepared (as the body shells are shortly to enter build phase), which was able to simulate the carriages and their internal layout differences.

There are some crucial differences due to the body alone. The train is “low floor”, which means that in the majority of cases the step may be as low as 100mm. This might also mean a step down. Stadler were able to simulate the different platform heights to identify the challenges of using a ramp from different heights and different degrees of incline. We discussed the elements of ingress and egress – the fact that the body has a sliding step is a new element that brings benefits. The carriage, with a lower floor, has a more pronounced curve in the lower part of the side of the body wall (to accommodate for passing through stations at speed). This means that the buttons at a metre from the floor can be reached by leaning forward.

The train, with its low floor design, is likely to not even require a ramp in some locations. It brings the possibility that completely independent travel could be closer than we realise – no ramp required. The design in place also looks to enable easier communication between on board staff and the customer.

Sat on the toilet lid making notesAt both the mock up and the meeting table, we utilised train plans to identify how wheelchair users may travel and discussed about the need for small tables, capable of holding a coffee. We went through how information may be displayed to the customers and issues conveyed through automated announcements, visual information and manual announcements. Colour contrast, toilet doors and call-for-aid buttons were discussed at length, identifying how small changes can make big differences. We discussed about how wheelchair users may transfer to a toilet (yes, there are two options now – side transfer or facing). What happens if a person falls off the toilet? What about washing your hands? Flushing the toilet? Forgetting to lock the door? Nothing was left out.

With the regional trains, we identified how small and large changes offer a completely different experience to a person travelling. We looked at how the position of priority seats and wheelchair spaces then led to other (non-disability) elements to be considered, giving an improved experience for customers without mobility issues. Suggesting one change meant that wooden panels were produced, measured, marked and used to show that the theory behind suggestions were possible. We discussed tip up seats, traveling with family, traveling alone, the need for people to have choice for their journey (which, to the credit of all involved, had already been considered). The accessible toilet now sits away from the wheelchair user on the opposite side of the vestibule door from the wheelchair spaces, for example. On intercity services, the buffet is within eye sight. 240v and USB power plugs will be available.

All the while, my colleague with a sensory need was giving her own feedback and input, feeding back about how she may undertake a journey, how her guide dog would be involved in her travel needs and how she would identify a priority seat. We looked at the internal colours in use and how these could affect a person with visual requirements. Audio and Visual displays were shown and positions noted to make it easy for a customer to find what they need to know. Automated announcements and visual announcements will help people who have hearing impairments.

I’m covering all this in a short space with no intention of discredit or not mentioning anything. Rail professionals were listening, writing, measuring to achieve the suggestions . I was impressed at the seriousness that they were showing in looking to gather all of the data and identify that they had interpreted our thoughts and ideas correctly. Action lists were drawn up immediately and signed off at the end of the day. At no point did it ever feel like “lip service” either – we are professionals with experience and the teams wanted to learn.

The outcome is that today we wrote history. A train interior was designed with people who are going to use it for the next 20 years. We were given the opportunity to have a positive impact on a project and I truly hope that we delivered. None of this would have been possible if it wasn’t for the partnership that I have through my work with the train service provider and my thanks must go to them for the opportunity. My gratitude cannot be measured.

I look forward to the delivery in the next few years. I’ll be proud to look at the train and know that I’ve had that smallest of hands in a huge and significant project.

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 Omnibus Ownership Query

Bit of a short one this – but almost sad, too – I am close to saying yes to taking on a bus and preserving it. Sadly, however, its a little beyond my means and far beyond my own capabilities to say yes.

Someone mentioned they had some Optare Solo’s available to preserve. Someone else has told me that they could look into getting it here – someone else offered it somewhere to live.

Quite gutting really, then, that I know sensibly, I’d have to say no.

Almost in tears…

The 1000 Mile Analysis

WP_20150206_13_45_34_ProIt’s been two years since I fitted an odometer to my Sunrise Quickie Xenon and near on three years since I took delivery.  In that time its seen the hold of planes, been on many trains, been used when photographing cranes (but only to sit in)… and of course, met many a bus.

As I reached a major mile marker this past week, I had a bit of a think about how far the chair has gone and what it has gone through, including:

  • Carrying the children on my knee
  • Countless meetings and walking to them
  • Humidity in butterfly houses
  • Mud in country parks

If it were a car, it’d be having its 3 year service by now – as it is, this chair has had two sets of rear tyres, three sets of front soft-rolls, the left brake broke and had to be replaced and at new year the seat support on the front left broke off, which is now being replaced.

Its a good chair and has worn well – given the choice in the future, I’d probably get another in a flash.  It fits in well with my family life and has taken the brunt of everything it has had thrown at it. 

Would I have another? Certainly.  My only recommendation – get yourself a speedometer and odometer and measure how far and how fast you go – it does make for some interesting numbers.

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Travel methodology

It is dark outside and I am currently repeating a journey I have done many times before, hurting along the track towards big city lights.

There is a realisation that now I escape and returns under the cover of darkness, a spy for the children of the night, a few more time linear events and soon the daylight shall grace us if not me with its presence over my journeys once again.

In the meantime I sit in my tunnel of nocturnal travel, intermittent breaks of intermediate stations where my train has no desire to call, Underworld and Orbital for company, dreaming until the fabled announcement of my arrival.

This is Stratford

The Mainline Experiment

I find myself back where I have been previously.  I use Chiltern Mainline very infrequently but not through choice.  However, as I write this I find myself on a Mainline train, sat in the Business Zone (trying to look like I mean business but probably just looking like I mean to go to sleep).  However, like two years ago, I have already encountered items worth noting. 

I journeyed in from Chelmsford to London Liverpool Street, a regular journey for me and one that excellent staff and colleagues assist me with to great humour and willingness.  It keeps me going back time after time and means I complain a lot less.  A quick(ish) taxi across London and I arrive at London Marylebone with time to spare. 

Once I had made it into the station up the surprisingly steep entrance ramp, I popped along to the information point, where I made myself known to Bob (not his real name).  I explained I wasn’t pre-booked, that sometimes you do only get 20 minutes notice of when you can shoot out the door and that I would dearly love (exaggeration, I know) to go to Kidderminster.

To his credit, he leapt into action and when I returned from a quick pit stop, he told me all was arranged and he’d be assisting me on to the train when it was available for boarding – which he did, with great politeness and efficiency (a credit to Chiltern). 

All did not stop there though – it transpires that the wheelchair accessible coach does not line up with the platform at Kidderminster.  Because of this, the guard and Bob were unsure of what to do.  The easiest solution, they suggested, was for me to move down a couple of carriages at Stourbridge Junction and that way be able to get off the train at Kidderminster with minimal fuss.  Kudos for the simplest thinking, saving me a taxi journey (which I hate) and means that I will land bang on time. 

This was customer service, pure and simple. 

After a fairly quick 2 hr journey, I arrived at Stourbridge, where the station staff were quick to assist me off the train and run down the platform with me to assist me on to another coach.  Even the lifts were in operation at Kidderminster when I arrived. 

That’s what train travel is about – the system working, even when I have to work with it.

The Elevation Principle

I used to love an inanimate object. I called her Loretta.

She was, frankly, amazing. She would say things – simple things – to anyone in the breathiest, sexiest voice. Everything was a come on.

“Going down.”

“Doors closing”

But sadly, after a recent refit, Loretta is gone. Her sexual prowess torn out. She is, sadly, a shell of her former self.

The Gold Medal Permutation

This week I had the rather huge honour (thanks to ATCO) of speaking along side a prestigious Paralympian.  She has more gold medals to her name than I have chocolate coins (because I have eaten them).  Sophie Christiansen demonstrated time after time how to be in control, confident as she made (in her own words) a “horse dance around”.  In a sandpit, no less.

Sophie Christiansen and Dominic Lund-ConlonAs I sat beside her and listened to how she faces challenge after challenge trying to access her local area and beyond, like anyone else living in the outer west London area, the stories were all too familiar – over travelling to accessible stations, lack of access to public transport, taxis driving straight past.  I wonder just how she manages to maintain control and confidence, as I’m not sure I could.

My own experiences were similar to hers in just travelling to the event in Birmingham.  On the Monday night, when arriving in Kidderminster at 19:45, I found the lift locked out of use and the staff had all gone home.  I had to throw myself on the mercy of a Chiltern train guard to help me up a steep ramp with my suitcase and wheelchair.  (Sophie experiences the same problem on South West Trains, too.)  The reason?  If it breaks down with no staff on the station, I’d be left stranded. Its “un-safe”.

I asked a London Midland Customer Services Manager about this on Tuesday at the “Meet The Manager” event who replied “oo it would take months to sort that”.  He said the solution is to alight me at a station with staff and taxi me to Kidderminster.  “Will the additional time I incur be compensated?” I asked. “No.”  Was the reply. 

Equality for access, but the extra 20-30 minutes in getting to my dinner, the toilet and a shower are not so equal after all.

MAN Bus Headlight ClusterOnce at the show on Tuesday, I tried out the latest in Gas Buses, this one destined for Arriva.  I bumped up on to the platform of the bus, where I went to turn right and move down the gangway, only to find that the drivers cabin protruded in to door platform and gangway; the open door protrudes into the gangway further.  I highlighted the issue, particularly as I am a very narrow chair, to the MAN engineers.  One key designer-engineer said “We pushed a wheelchair through fine no problem” before walking away.  I had to wonder how hard they pushed it through to the otherwise lovely and access compliant bus.

So, when talking about accessibility in public transport on Thursday afternoon, how many of the 12 or so bus manufacturers were there to hear about how their vehicles affect the customers that really rely on them? 2? 5? 9? 

None.  Not one. 

I noted about 4 operators.  Probably 10 or so local authorities.  6 or 8 disabled persons from representative groups.  A few trade organisations and a some media.

As I explained how going on transport for me is a gamble of how accessible it will be, I ponder if bus manufacturers are happy to have their own gamble with the vehicles they sell.

Partnership has been key to a lot of what I have done so far in my public transport career.  So, on behalf of disabled people everywhere, I extend an olive branch to public transport operators and vehicle manufacturers everywhere – come and talk to disabled people (and I don’t mean just a select few that you know of).  Seek out the access groups and individuals.  Learn of who we are and where we are.  Learn what we might need to access your transport services or your solutions you sell.  Let us, disabled people, be able to turn to others and say “look how good it has got”.  Let CPT turn and show others “this is how it should be done.”

Welcome AboardWe all had a lot of momentum over the summer.  It would be a travesty to lose that.

Because each time I manage a trouble free, accessible journey on public transport, I’ll put a chocolate medal around my neck.

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.