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.
As 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.
Once 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.”
We 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.