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 Transportation Transition Experiment

I believe its probably fair to say that I get on quite well with Greater Anglia… in the most part. Sometimes I get a little frustrated with them when my train is late or when I buy my ticket in the morning and see, once again, that it is really just daylight robbery… that’s my opinion and I realise others – like Sheila or Bruce – might have other opinions.  However, sometimes I am out there on my own and I need to get on with it.

Like yesterday, for example.  I knew the signs were there that it was going to be a serious slog on the iron road.  Little things – trains being cancelled due to a fault, the day being a Thursday, signs saying “it’ll be a hard slog today” and so on.  Oh – and a train ticket that said “Braintree”.  I’d been asked to go at short notice – no time to book the journey there and definitely way of knowing what time I should return – this is not a slur on Braintree, just I’d not been there before.

To kick off, it seemed that Lady Luck (one of the guys at Witham) was on my side – I arrived in to Witham in the morning and in seconds… alright – two minutes – I was off the train, over the bridge and on to the next train out – they held it for me.  I was (and still am) grateful. 

I got to Braintree about 9:10 or so, assisted by a driver rather than the ticket office staff who were caught up in a micro rush. Coffee there, by the way – 80p more than Clacton station.  I got on and took some photos as it was a nice day before heading off to a school in Bocking for a Try a Bus Day.

I value these days – they help a lot of people spark that first step – often the next is travel training.  But that first introduction to the bus (or train) is a key element – done correctly, it sets the idea going that a person can travel.  I think its vital work. 

After this and a meeting (and lunch) I headed back to the station, my charmed existence running out by this time.  It was 16:15.  When I got to the station, I found it was unstaffed. Empty. Deserted.  Devoid of human members of the Greater Anglia fraternity. People had gone home. There would be no fandango.  Beeching had swung his axe. It was an ex-staff afternoon. There was no one there.  It is an unstaffed station.

Its in times like this that many people would either panic, sit tight and hope it would turn out ok or go home.

I turned to twitter.  “@greateranglia arrived at Braintree. No staff here! HELP!”  Bearing in mind that there had been an incident on two other lines – one involving a serious accident and another involving serious signals – I wasn’t hopeful.  But I regularly tweet them, so I crossed my fingers. And my legs. I might have been a little bit busting, as Monkey would say.

A few minutes later I got a reply: “Just calling them now”… and then, a message via the great unknowns of DM: “Call us – [number]”. 

This was new – but a quick way to sort it.  I called, established with them that there was no one there.  The guy on the phone – GK was also on the phone to Witham, who had put a ramp on the next train coming up with the guard.  This meant that i could get on my train with the assistance I need.

This does raise a question for me though – what if I didn’t know the Greater Anglia staff as well as I do? What happens if someone else finds themselves stranded?  Very few train operators leave their twitter accessed after 7-8PM, so what happens later at night?  If there was ever support for a business case needed – surely this is the key item to support it.

Some might argue I should book – but there is no requirement for me to book as I only require a ramp to access the train, therefore no actual other assistance.  Couple that with the unpredictability of my work travel and its rare I can and do book.

I got home bang on time – thanks to the quick reactions of the people on Twitter at Greater Anglia. It shows that once again Social Media is useful.  I just hope others have the confidence to do the same as I did in the future and that train companies react in the same way Greater Anglia did for me.