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 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 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 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 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. 

Keeping on track

172340-kidderminster

172340 stands at Kidderminster on Mon 4 Oct 2011

This morning I turned up at Kidderminster Railway Station to get a train to Birmingham International (via Smethwick Galton Bridge and Birmingham New Street).  Not a usual journey for me, considering I live in Essex.  I turned up and there, in the disabled parking bay – a white van with two railway cleaning contractors and no blue badge.  I asked them why and they said “there’s loads of spaces” (I found out they were meant to clean the station.)

A bit… well – its the principle.  Best way to complain?  Remembering London Midland are on Twitter, I tweeted them.

Coming home – the wheelchair access gate was locked, which it shouldn’t be.  If you know Kidderminster, you’d know there was no access to the ticket office.  And the lock was on the outside – which I couldn’t reach.  It was apparently to ensure that bikes weren’t stolen (but shouldn’t they be locked?)

Cue another tweet.

And then I looked at my replies:

@LondonMidland @daddydoink unacceptable, I agree. I have passed details to our facilities maintenance team.

@LondonMidland @daddydoink have passed info re gate to local manager. Contractors have been spoken to from this morning.

No wonder they win awards for customer interaction – a very prompt positive outcome.  But also – it demonstrates how seriously they take the input from customers.  I have to say – I am impressed.

Boris’ Blunder Bus

 

Blunder Boris Bus

Its not a secret but I have never really said this:

I do not approve of the Boris Bus

Why? It looks iconic, it has DDA compliance and will be excellent for boarding and draw tourists attention… The routemaster was iconic for that and in its hayday people considered it to be the best for its job.

But that was its hayday. And this is now.

All London buses require dual doors, which means when they finish their working life in London, they need to be converted to single door and preferably have the access retained for wheelchairs.

But in some counties, dual door buses cannot be used on contract services. There is a firm requirement for single door vehicles, as the county may not support the infrastructure for dual door vehicles.

So, my worry begins to show – what will the impact be on future bus cascades? We are already beginning to see cascades of ex-London vehicles and this is only set to grow. The question is now, will Boris realise the greater impact for outside London and also the environmental impact of scrapping these buses after, instead of recycling them for a bit more life out of them?

Perhaps he can’t see past the vanity mirror on his own cab…

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