Transport CommitteeWritten evidence from Philip Barton (DAT 10)

As an active wheelchair-user for 15 years I offer the following personal perspective. As a private individual, I am unfamiliar with all of the relevant legislation but I hope my experiences can nevertheless be of assistance to the select committee.

1. Bus (Outside London)

1.1. Unreliable wheelchair accessible (Schedule 1) buses

There are many more Schedule 1 vehicles in service compared with only three years ago but, in many places, only a small proportion of routes are guaranteed to use all Schedule 1 vehicles. Schedule 2 or stepped entry buses are often interspersed with Schedule 1 vehicles. This makes it impossible for a wheelchair-user to plan a journey with any confidence leading to long waits at the bus stop or the abandonment of the journey.

1.2. Driver prejudice

I continue to hear excuses such as: “electric wheelchairs aren’t allowed”; “I’m not allowed to get out of the cab [to operate the ramp]”; “you should have someone with you [to operate the ramp]”. Or, drivers simply speed on by when they see a wheelchair-user requesting the bus to stop. On one occasion, following a driver change half-way through the journey, the new driver refused to let me off the bus at my destination. I was not allowed off until the driver had reached the end of the route, where his manager then interrogated me, demanding my name and address (which I refused to give). Bus companies rarely respond to my complaints about driver behaviour any more.

1.3. Reduction in service standards over time

Competition for profitable routes often leads to a company swamping a route with Schedule 1 vehicles at a 10-minute frequency (the EU standard for wheelchair-accessible services). However, once they have established themselves and competing operators have disappeared, service frequency is reduced to 20-minutes, then 30-minutes and older buses are brought in as the Schedule 1 vehicles are sent to the next target route to repeat the exercise. Thus, wheelchair-users who may have come to rely upon the initially high standard of service are no longer able to get about so easily.

1.4. Too few quality contracts/partnerships

Not enough use is made of these to force operators to maintain a specified standard of service.

1.5. Managing passenger conflict

Drivers often fail to keep the wheelchair space free, allowing luggage (a particular problem on airport shuttles) or parents with prams to occupy it. They also shy away from telling people to vacate the wheelchair space to allow a wheelchair-user to occupy it, leading to arguments between passengers. Some operators (eg First Group in York) actively market their vehicles as “baby buggy friendly”, with a baby buggy symbol inside the wheelchair space. This gives the entirely wrong impression that baby buggies have priority over wheelchair-users for the use of that dedicated space.

1.6. Transport for London model

None of the problems noted above happen in London (in my experience). If the Transport For London model were adopted across the entire UK, most of the problems I have encountered would disappear overnight.

1.7. Poor maintenance of accessibility features

Wheelchair ramps are often very poorly maintained, filthy and/or broken. Many of these ramps were electrically operated when new but the electromagnetic contacts become so dirty that they stop working and the ramps have to be operated manually (See Plate 1). In some cases, the switch that operates the ramp is deliberately blanked off. Sometimes the handle of a manually operated ramp is removed, providing a legitimate reason to refuse access to wheelchair-users. The fold-up seat, which allows access to the wheelchair space, is usually operated by either a spring or a weight. These mechanisms commonly break and are not repaired. This makes accessing the space very difficult because one must hold up the broken seat at the same time as trying to manoeuvre the wheelchair into the space (often at the same time as the driver is starting to pull away from the bus stop). During the journey, it also leads to the wheelchair-user suffering pain and discomfort as the broken fold-up seat rests against a leg or knee (See Plate 2).

2. Trains

2.1. Additional booking costs faced by disabled passengers

There was public outrage when it was revealed that disabled people were being required to pay to book tickets for Paralympic events when able bodied people did not have to pay. However, the same situation has been the case for many years in relation to booking assistance for rail journeys. Wheelchair-users are expected to book the wheelchair space on their chosen train before travelling, although this is not a legal requirement. All major rail operators use Journeycare (0845 744 3366). In my experience, the average length of a call made to Journeycare is about 10 minutes. The charge is 4.9p per minute (much higher than the supposed maximum of 3.7p per minute for 0845 numbers). So, even an average length call would cost about 49p. However, if one is purchasing tickets at the same time as booking assistance, the call often lasts up to 30 minutes, costing about £14.70, which is significant. When booking tickets with Journeycare none of the savings that able-bodied people can obtain by shopping around are available. So, not only are disabled people paying to book their assistance but they are paying more for their tickets than would otherwise be the case. It is possible to book assistance only. However, when one buys a ticket in the same way an able-bodied person would, there is no way of knowing whether the wheelchair space is available on the service one has a ticket for. Allowing passengers to independently book the wheelchair space at the same time they buy their ticket would resolve this issue. It is possible to reserve other types of seat online and reservations are sometimes allocated automatically to certain ticket types. So, it ought to be possible to reserve the wheelchair space in the same way.

2.2. Blocking of wheelchair space

Often the access route to the wheelchair space (and the space itself) is blocked by baggage, bicycles, prams, bags of rubbish and even cleaning materials (See Plates 3 to 5). Even when it is obvious that the wheelchair space has been reserved by a wheelchair-user, other passengers balk at having to move their bags or change seats. Wheelchair-users in particular are often prevented from reaching the toilet for the same reason. I would like to see a “clearway” created, perhaps with yellow hatching on the floor defining the wheelchair space, manoeuvring space and access to the toilet and exit door—all to be kept clear for disability access. Fines could be levied on passengers who refuse to respect the clearway by standing in it or putting their bags, bikes and so on in it.

2.3. Use of minimums in design of wheelchair space

There appears to have been a return to the use of “minimums” in the design of wheelchair spaces on trains. The minimum size for a wheelchair space is 700mm wide by 1200mm long. Many trains (eg Virgin Trains’ Pendolino) were designed with additional space for manoeuvring and access to the toilet. On the recently refurbished Great Western Trains, on the East Coast Line, there is no manoeuvring space and there is a fixed table in the wheelchair space. This makes it extremely difficult to access that space. Indeed, for a left-handed electric wheelchair user it would probably be impossible because the joystick would not clear the fixed table. The effect of this sort of penny-pinching is that wheelchair-users will seek alternative (and less environmentally friendly) ways of travelling, if they are available; or simply stay at home.

2.4. Punitive use of “reference wheelchair” model

The “reference wheelchair” is a model used in the design of wheelchair accessible transport. Earlier this year, a member of staff at a Merseyrail station interrogated me about the dimensions of one of my electric wheelchairs, which is 710mm wide—just 10mm wider than the reference wheelchair. He demanded my name and address (which I refused to give) and I was made to feel under an accusation of a criminal act by using a wheelchair that does not conform to the reference dimensions. I am sure this punitive use was not intended by legislators and nowhere have I seen evidence to suggest that simply because a wheelchair exceeds the reference dimensions it is inherently unsafe or otherwise unsuitable for transport on a train. Regulations should prevent this abuse and establish how wheelchair-users who use wheelchairs and scooters that exceed the reference dimensions should be assessed for access to public transport.

2.5. Incorrect station accessibility information

It is essential for wheelchair-users in particular to know that the platforms at stations they need to use are accessible. On one work-related rail journey I planned to travel from my home to Hatton, then by road to Egginton, then by rail from Willington to Derby, from where I would make my return journey. The most current rail accessibility map at that time was published in September 2006. The extract of this map (See Plate 6) indicates that, whereas Uttoxeter is not wheelchair accessible, the three stations I planned to use (Tutbury & Hatton, Willington and Derby) are. In fact, Willington was not wheelchair accessible. I did manage to catch a bus back into Derby but it was an anxious time and I had to retrace my journey back to Egginton Village to find the nearest accessible bus service. Better, more frequently updated and more widely available station accessibility information is needed.

2.6. Rail replacement buses not accessible

In my experience, Schedule 1 vehicles are not always used for rail replacement services. It is assumed that all wheelchair-users can use taxis. This is a false and possibly discriminatory assumption (see section 3). I gathered evidence about this problem on the Merseyrail Wirral Line in 2010. I was intimidated by bus operator staff, who called the British Transport Police in an attempt to have me arrested for collecting data and taking photographs of the old, inaccessible double-decker vehicles being used. I was not arrested. This was not the first time this had happened and it continues to happen, despite Merseyrail accepting, in 2005, that Schedule 1 vehicles would be the “closest alternative” to the solution provided for able-bodied passengers.

3. Hackney Carriages

3.1. Inflexibility of Licensing Authorities

A few authorities (eg in Stafford) will license as hackney carriages vehicles capable of loading wheelchair-users from the rear of the vehicle, thus allowing the person to remain in their wheelchair for the duration of the journey. However, the traditional hackney carriage design is unsuited to carrying anything but a standard manual wheelchair. The majority of electric wheelchair users who travel in a hackney carriage must do so transversely (ie stationed at 90 degrees to the driver’s seating position). This is both uncomfortable and unsafe. The reason given for not licensing more appropriate vehicles for wheelchair transport is the hackney carriage regulations. Attempts to alter these regulations and bring hackney carriage design into line with other forms of public transport were resisted and defeated by the industry. Nevertheless, the fact that some authorities do license rear-loading vehicles as hackney carriages demonstrates that it would be possible to meet the needs of all but a very small minority of wheelchair-users who want or need to use a hackney carriage.

3.2. Tussle between the Department for Transport (DfT) and licensing authorities

According to officers at the DfT I have spoken to over the years, hackney carriage drivers could be arrested, charged and lose their licence if they were to be caught transporting wheelchair-users in a transverse position. Yet, the existing regulations make it impossible for many electric wheelchairs to manoeuvre into the so-called “wheelchair-space” in the back of a hackney carriage. There appears to be a power struggle going on between DfT and licensing authorities, with the health and safety of wheelchair-users being compromised as a result.

4. Coach

4.1. Accessibility of multi-leg journeys

European regulation 181.2011.EU has been written into UK law and, from 2013, will require coach operators to provide assistance to disabled passengers who notify operators of their needs no later than 36 hours prior to travelling on a scheduled journey of more than 250km (155mi). It is unclear whether operators will be able to avoid providing assistance where each individual leg of a journey is less than 250km. In relation to Article 2 of the EU regulation, I would like to see the equivalent UK regulations make it clear that assistance should be provided based upon the total length of an intended journey rather than only where “the scheduled distance of the service is 250km or more”.

4.2. Toilet provision and physical sustenance

Annex 1 of European regulation 181.2011.EU requires on-board assistance to be provided only “if there are personnel other than the driver on board”. The wheelchair space is usually at the front of the vehicle but the toilet is at the rear. Many wheelchair-users would be unable to walk safely from one end of the coach to the other. Thus, they would need to use the toilet during “pauses” in the journey. However, if the driver is a lone worker, the regulations do not require assistance to be offered to disabled people who want or need to alight and board again during “pauses” in the journey. Similarly, a wheelchair-user may be unable to purchase sustenance during “pauses” in the journey. This uncertainty about toilet access in particular represents a significant disincentive to independent travel for many wheelchair-users.

5. Class 3 Invalid Carriage

5.1. Use of in bus lanes

Class 3 invalid carriages (electric wheelchairs and scooters) are not permitted in bus lanes. Where there are two lanes of traffic, one of which is a bus lane, a Class 3 user is forced into the middle of the road. Neither bus drivers nor car drivers seem to have the confidence to overtake a Class 3 user in this situation, leading to queues of traffic in both lanes and “road rage” directed against the Class 3 user. Consideration ought to be given to allowing Class 3 invalid carriage users to travel in bus lanes.

5.2. Use of on cycle tracks and in cycle lanes

Class 2 and Class 3 users are not permitted to use cycle tracks on the public footway or cycle lanes on the road. I have been warned by the Police to keep off cycle tracks, following a complaint made by a cyclist. Most cycle tracks and cycle lanes are underused and the inability of Class 2 and Class 3 users to occupy them means that we are being exposed to greater discomfort and danger than is necessary. The slight inconvenience caused to cyclists would be far outweighed by the increased protection of Class 2 and 3 users that segregation on the highway would achieve.

5.3. Hostility of other road users

One taxi driver recently threatened to run me off the road “by accident”. The same bus drivers who don’t want me on their bus also object to seeing me on the road. Often, young men shout at me out of the car window. These verbal assaults have included: “Get off the fucking road you fat four-eyed flid” [a derogatory term for a thalidomide victim]; “Where’s yer tax disc?” [it is clearly displayed on my wheelchair], and other insults. Unnecessary sounding of the car horn [an offence in itself] and intimidatory (or, excessively cautious) driving are also problems. Public information films reminding car drivers to be aware of motorcycles are regularly shown on national television. Ought not other vulnerable road users be featured in these public information films? This would establish the lawfulness of Class 3 invalid carriage use on the highway in the minds of car drivers.

5.4. Hostility of the Police

I have been told by the Police that verbal outbursts telling me to: “Get off the road” are “good advice”. I think I have a right to expect the Police to support my lawful use of the highway rather than take sides against vulnerable road users in a way that seems to legitimise the discriminatory behaviour of car, taxi and bus drivers.

6. Aeroplanes

6.1. Baggage handling arrangements

Upon arrival at my destination airport, I usually find that my electric wheelchair has been smashed to pieces. On one trip to Portland, Oregon, USA, my wheelchair was so badly damaged that it had to be completely rebuilt—which took two weeks and required me to borrow a replacement wheelchair for the entire duration of my visit. Several times I have watched baggage handlers load/offload my wheelchair from the hold of the plane. Despite having taped detailed instructions (in relevant languages) to the wheelchair regarding how to engage and disengage the motors and provided signs such as “lift from the frame only”, “this way up” and so on, I have been dismayed to see the wheelchair being loaded/offloaded on its side, dropped off the end of the conveyor onto the apron and be rolled over because the baggage handlers were unable to work out how to disengage the motors to allow it to be freewheeled! I appreciate that little can be done outside the UK to resolve such issues but could not regulations be drafted that require operators at UK airports to improve the way they handle essential equipment such as wheelchairs to prevent distress and inconvenience to disabled travellers? For example, requiring all wheelchairs to be strapped down in the hold and/or boxed up rather than allowing them to tumble around the hold with the rest of the baggage, would be a start.

6.2. Seating

Often I negotiate for many hours with airlines to secure a seat next to the toilets but, upon check-in, I am assigned to a seat as far away from the toilets that it is possible to be. I often fall over on my way to the toilet and then receive a stiffly worded letter from the airline telling me that I am a threat to the safety of other passengers because I tend to fall over when trying to walk! Could not regulations be drafted to protect disabled UK citizens who are booking aeroplane seats in the UK from airlines with a UK-based operation from this sort of poor treatment? When are we going to see the same sort of wheelchair access on aeroplanes that we see on trains?

6.3. Toileting

When the design of the new Airbus A-380 was mooted, a mock-up of the cabin shown to journalists included a wheelchair-accessible toilet cubicle of similar design and dimensions to that on Virgin’s Pendolino trains. Today, only Singapore Airlines have a toilet that is anywhere near wheelchair accessible and the indignity that disabled passengers are forced to endure on long haul flights in particular ought to be a cause of shame to the international community. Many disabled passengers are still advised to have themselves catheterised before a flight or to wear a nappy! This is totally unacceptable. I would like the committee to put as much pressure as possible upon bodies responsible to approving aeroplane cabin layout and design to better take into account the needs of disabled passengers and wheelchair-users in particular and to propose regulations to achieve this.

Thank you for allowing me this opportunity to submit the foregoing to the select committee. Please feel free to contact me if I can be of any further assistance.

Plate 1

Plate 2

Plate 3

Plate 4

Plate 5

Plate 6

December 2012

Prepared 13th September 2013