When ‘Accessible’ is not Acceptable

When ‘Accessible’ is not Acceptable

New DH contributor, Rob Bracewell, shares a thought provoking article on the issue of whether accessible transport provides a customer experience that is of an equal quality to that received by an abled bodied passenger.

As a wheelchair user who travels by train daily, I have warmly welcomed the changes that have slowly started to come about following the development of the DDA and now the Equality Act 2010. Recently, however, I have started to become increasingly disenchanted and critical of the type and standard of facilities available and the quality of experience that follows from them.

Firstly, it says something about the steps so far taken that I am in the luxurious position of critiquing the quality of provision, as it is but a few short years since it was the guards’ van or nothing!

With the World now changing, treating me as a ‘customer’ rather than a ‘problem’, my expectations have similarly changed; I now expect to receive the same level and quality of treatment and service as any other customer. I am, however, realistic, adaptable and reasonable chap well used to ‘roughing’ it well able to ‘bend like a reed in the wind’ should things not be perfect; especially true with older existing rolling stock and facilities – such as the 08:11 from Morecambe to Lancaster. Saying that, I have started to demand greater things from newer designs; I expect consultation and involvement to have taken place, design guidance to be exceeded and innovation tried to overcome what was seemed insurmountable in the past.

All Bells and Whistles

Imagine, therefore, my delight a few years ago with the introduction of the Virgin Voyager and then the Pendolino classes, with their ‘consultation led design’ ethos to improve accessibility. Imagine then my disappointment when I discovered the wheelchair spaces on the Voyager (initially just two), were just that – spaces tucked out of the way behind other seats; no chance to transfer and limited connection with other passengers – apart from the odd squabble about their suitcases! This was made more acute when travelling with my children, who had to sit away from dad – a problem with a then hyperactive young son.

The much lauded Pendolino offers a larger space and improved face to face contact with fellow travellers, enabling some social interaction with companions etc., but again no real opportunity to transfer. Both classes provide tables, but they are too small and offer limited workspace – again an assumption that wheelchair using passengers would not require such workspace. The Voyager’s table, for example, has a large grey box with a huge red button in the middle – a doomsday button perhaps?

The final ‘nail in the coffin’, however, has been the introduction of the new Class 185 units on Northern Rail / Trans-Pennine routes. This type replaced the perfectly acceptable Class 175’s which were returned to Wales from where they were borrowed (They were equipped with two wheelchair spaces – in the same carriage – both of which were facing other seats and had access to a proper table.).

The Class 185 units were eagerly awaited, mooted as they were to have plenty of space and ‘all bells and whistles’, including a fully accessible loo! Disappointment tinted with not a little anger followed as I discovered that I was back in the guard’s van all over again! Admittedly it now has a carpet and a loo, but it is essentially the guards van. It is an open carriage shared by first class (segregated of course), at one end of the train with fold down seats, two dedicated wheelchair ‘spaces’ but space for a couple more or pushchairs.

As indicated it is next to first class, but don’t bother getting a first class ticket – you can’t get through the doors even if there was a space in there – which there isn’t, but there is a loo. Any person travelling with you has to use a convenient, small, space saving fold down seat, not brilliant – but there is a loo. As the units now cover from Manchester to Edinburgh and Glasgow, my late mum, for example, travelling with me would have to travel on one of these seats, or sit somewhere else in the train – but there is a loo!

Contacting the companies involved expressing my concern regarding these units, and was answered with a surprised and confident “…well yours is the first complaint we’ve received about these units, everyone else is happy with them, plus they were built with guidance and full consultation!” Apart from wanting to know with whom they have actually consulted, more fundamentally I’d like to know what train operators think of people like me – with wheels attached – and what they actually want from a journey. Are we just a space, just a loo to them and that’s it, or is there something more? I would argue quite strongly that it is a lot, lot more.

Realism

I am, of course, well aware that train travel can be a trial for everyone, under-resourced and over-crowded running on an overstretched network; as well as having companies and designers that would really like all people to be a standard size and shape. If we were but a ‘unit’ of equal size and shape it would make their lives much easier by making carrying potential of the units to be maximised to the full, but we aren’t; and just providing a ‘space’ doesn’t cut it for me anymore.

I want to travel in the class I choose, to sit and interact with my fellow travellers or companions, go to the onboard shop and get a coffee or work on my laptop – and not have to sit in the quiet zone if I don’t want to! Essentially I’d like to access to the train and its facilities, not a ‘special’ coach with every other wheelchair user with ‘reasonable’ or ‘assisted’ provision. In short I’d like to see operators and designers exceed design guidance, knock ‘reasonable’ for six and stop building to the ‘minimum’ provision!

For example; the Voyager could be easily improved by turning the seats in front of the wheelchair user round to face them, install a folding table and mount the sockets and panic button on a wall or window plate. The Pendolino could be improved by replacing the dreadful table with a folding or standard one. The Class 185’s could be improved by spreading the spaces throughout the train proper – it isn’t rocket science is it?

Hindsight is a marvellous thing, but perhaps if the designers had built a unit fit for a journey where every passenger could use the services, perhaps if they had spoken to the right people – or people at all – to ensure that they understood the issues and what people wanted from a mode of transport, perhaps then we would have a form of travel equality. It is clear in my mind that the process of travelling distance is not only a mundane motor process, but a social activity, where humans are thrown together in a shared experience; thus chatting, reading, drinking and eating are part of it – segregation is not.

Accessibility vs. Acceptability

All the above trains are classed as ‘accessible’, but I would argue that they aren’t quite acceptable – not now. We should now be demanding, not asking, for the same quality of experience as everyone else, we should have moved away from ‘special’ to ‘inclusive’ planning, deal with fewer assumptions and start to enjoy the journey as a social activity as well as merely a mode of transport.

There is no doubt that few people have complained about the Class 185’s, as they – especially larger wheelchairs – can now actually get onto a train, something they may not have done for years; they don’t always have to book support as there is a ramp carried and pleasant (in the main) staff to operate them so they don’t have to worry about their station being unmanned – all good stuff – but, why should we all be grouped together in a posh cattle truck, segregated and separated or hidden away behind seats at the back of the carriage, isolated and alone? Isn’t apartheid a thing of the past?

As I said above, the fact I can now get on the train and start thinking and intellectualising the experience critically shows how far we have actually come; our trains are becoming increasingly accessible, but at the moment I still think we’re a long way from the point when equality of experience is the norm.

By Rob Bracewell