Transport CommitteeWritten evidence from Mark Blathwayt (DAT 19)

Contents

1.Introduction and Background.

2.International Dimension to Law and Regulation.

3.Lavatories, WCs and aspects of Transport Law.

4.Leadership in the Paralympics Transport planning.

5.Wheelchair users, travelling in teams or Groups, to be a priority market on High Speed 2 joining the Channel Tunnel.

6.“Are You Disabled?”

7.Conclusion.

Introduction

I think attitude is a very important part of it, but also there are times when we are so behind in just thinking about disabled people....We all have to keep working on it.” The Baroness Grey-Thompson DBE , DL, 9 December 2012

1. Background

1.01 Since 1969, in one direct capacity or another, I have been involved, closely, in sharing journeys with friends with many different types of reduced mobility, by rail, sea and air.

1.02 This always means making sure that our journeys are safe, but also as fun, comfortable, practical, convenient and affordable as possible. It is seldom easy.

1.03 Sometimes the problem has been that legal regulations have intervened to render the journey, not easier than in the past but either impossible altogether or unrealistically more complicated or restrictive. The Laws of unintended consequences frequently kick in.

1.04 Many different aspects of these issues have been brought to the notice of Parliamentary Committees and Government in previous years and, in conferences and in direct contacts with the wider transport industry. (Searching the House of Commons website under the heading “Wheelchairs; Transport; Blathwayt” may help with some other references)

2. International Dimension to Law and Regulations

2.01 Sometimes the Law has helped, other times regulations themselves have been extremely unhelpful. Poor Regulations in transport can make real injustices and discrimination in transport, however immoral, lawful in practice. The regulation itself discriminates and, then, “is held up as the reason why nothing else need be done.”

2.02 Compared to very limited recent personal experience of ad hoc improvements in Massachusetts, USA, most, though not all, rail initiatives in Europe are, at best limited, or otherwise lamentable and unimaginative. Even so, The Americans with Disabilities Act is not perfect.

2.03 The switch to high speed train set formations like Eurostar has meant there have been real improvements on what existed before. Some operators like Virgin, seem to understand the needs of the disabled better than others; that leadership comes, in part from the top, in part from railway staff themselves becoming more expert, expert especially at listening to the real expert, the person with reduced mobility, and thereby becoming more aware.

2.04 On Eurostar, in vivid contrast, the number of places for wheelchair users is too small (there are only 2 spaces, soon to be raised to 4 places, in an 18 carriage train)

2.05 For people needing to remain in their wheelchairs on Eurostar this is recognised as ridiculously low and there is further artificial restriction for other wheelchair users able to transfer to seating.

2.06 Across Britain and the European Union, regulators, transport ministries, governments, management and staff and legislators seem to close ranks together to agree to suppress demands by wheelchair users, unless, that is, they happen to be members of the French or Belgian Paralympic teams travelling on Eurostar to LONDON 2012 for the Paralympics, in which cases eighteen wheelchair users sitting in their wheelchairs on each Eurostar were not just permitted but welcomed and feted! We have been hoping to do exactly that since 1991, but been told it was “Impossible; Never!”

2.07 However, conversations with Nicolas Petrovic’s Eurostar head office in recent months, suggest that while an Olympic Legacy might be possible, that would work for other groups, and it might be possible in theory, they maintain the stance that it does not seem very likely at the moment to be practical or economic. Why, when there is such established demand, despite the obstacles? How would demand grow if the obstacles were publicly removed?

2.08 What are the precise reasons for not offering this access more widely? If regulations under the law make it legal for selective restriction, are the existing regulations legal or are they inherently discriminatory and ultra vires?

2.09 Travel agents have tried to help, but occasionally have hinted, quite sternly, that if too much fuss is made, “the regulations will be enforced more strictly” and we may be banned altogether, or banned from travelling in groups, either as spectators or participants as the case may be. Sometimes the Law is made to look like an Ass.

3. Lavatories

WCs and the Law affecting Transport

3.01 Trains, boats, planes and coaches pose different problems, each requiring, as appropriate, changes in laws and regulations to be made.

3.02 How often have any of us not been able to get to the lavatory when we wish to?

(The reasons? Possibly because the WC is out of order, or is locked, or too far away, or the access to it is blocked or made inaccessible, or the carriage water tank is empty, or it is simply “occupied”?)

The able bodied person may move to another carriage with a working WC; what about the wheelchair user?

3.03 On aircraft, many able bodied travellers find it difficult or cramped to use the industry international standard lavatories on aircraft. For those with reduced mobility using an aircraft WC is never convenient, frequently it can be undignified, a nightmare.

3.04 On aircraft, while able bodied passengers are urged to drink plenty of fluids to prevent de-hydration, those with mobility restrictions often decide for themselves, or feel prompted by realities, to ignore this advice and restrict their fluid intake lest it require them to run the gauntlet of being manhandled into the WC.

3.05 How will the British Government take the lead to secure international agreement that the days of the existing industry wide, international “bog standard” aircraft WCs are definitely strictly numbered?

3.06 On trains or ships or coaches, the vehicles’ construction and long service life of many years, even decades, may limit significantly, what may be done quickly.

3.07 By contrast every element of a passenger aircraft’s interior is modular and can be (and frequently is) taken out and replaced in a matter of hours. Access gang ways can be made wider, proper wheelchair accessible WCs installed, and all done without any need whatsoever for structural changes to be made to the aircraft fuselage. Isn’t it time that design work and consultations begin immediately to ensure that all modular fitted aircraft WCs are wheelchair accessible, without delay? This is international law at its most fundamental.

3.08 On some ships, raised thresholds at doorways to prevent flooding in rough weather; may restrict the numbers of WCs that are wheelchair accessible, but technical solutions could be better enforced under international maritime law. The government has a leadership role here too, both within the European Community and in other international institutions.

3.09 On rail, in Britain, the regulators within the Department for Transport “chose to put seat numbers per railway coach before economies of scale and convenience for wheelchair users.” Instead of regulating that in every single passenger railway vehicle that had a WC, that WC should be wheelchair accessible, they decreed that only 25% of carriages should be so equipped and that 75% of all railway carriages in service in Britain should, effectively not be wheelchair accessible. That is discrimination in the minds of many; a pointlessly more complicated, less economic production line abnormality, losing economies of scale, that discriminates legally.

3.10 When the European Rail Standards for Technical Interoperability came to be drafted by the EU, the Department for Transport deliberately decided, presumably in the working parties “at least to get something agreed” (because some parts of the EU member states were so behind the UK). They proposed to set the bar low; however the result is that all across Europe it will be a legal defence against a charge of passive discrimination to show that only 75% of all brand new carriages comprising a train service have no wheelchair accessible WC.

3.11 In Europe as a whole, the travelling needs of the working population of elderly and disabled people seems set to increase; How is a British government going to lead that process to ensure the convenience of such “journeys to work” by train plane or ferry are truly convenient, and particularly, made convenient in the true WC sense of the word?

3.12 Once, at a transport conference on accessibility in London, it was pointed out that Switzerland had a somewhat more accessible and flexible and welcoming approach to wheelchair users than many other countries; The answer from the chair, hard to credit, was “That may be true, but Switzerland is not part of Europe”.

3.13 Worse, the Law of unintended consequences strikes again. If disability campaigners were now to win the argument in the Westminster Parliament that all British train operators and rolling stock owning companies were to be required by British law to make every WC in every railway carriage wheelchair accessible, then aggrieved industry parties could take the British Government to court for “gold plating” and going beyond what EU accessibility legislation requires, secure a fine against the British Government and obtain damages! Draconian? It seems so, but how True?

3.14 There needs to be much greater emphasis on looking after people’s wheelchairs and mobility scooter and hand trikes; greater capacity to carry them ; and legal penalties and compensation and full restitution for when things go wrong.

3.15 This is a special problem with aircraft operators who seem expert in separating user from wheelchair and even better at loosing crucial bits like cushions, foam pads, armrests, footrests, brake levers, baskets and instruction labels.

3.16 It is very difficult when local authorities like Bath and North East Somerset Council used the law in very decisive ways, apparently, at best, “unaware” of the nature of the damage being done by their acts and omissions in relation to dramatic changes at Bath Spa railway station in removing Brunel’s original access road, and in ways that limit access for people with reduced mobility despite a new tiny lift.

4. Learning from Good Leadership in the Paralympics

4.01 In the summer of 2012 there was a timely “volte face” that permitted Eurostar to welcome the French and Belgian Paralympic Teams. Each team, with 18 Paralympic Team wheelchair users remaining in their wheelchairs, all travelling together at the same time, were invited to go through the Channel Tunnel in a Eurostar for the Paralympics and Olympics. Altogether, they were joined by yet more additional travelling companions and team mates, in the same trains, who were able to transfer from their wheelchairs to ordinary seats, but such seats having good access to wheelchair accessible WCs/Lavatories/toilets.

4.02 Why has not anyone been congratulated publicly for this bold sensible logical carefully planned common sense change in management and regulatory attitude?

4.03 Who were the people leading the teams of engineers, managers, marketing executives with a proper international “can do” railway attitude that brought it all to fruition? What are they doing now? Preparing for the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow in 2014? The Rugby World Cup in 2015? Future Athletic Competitions? Or belatedly, many other sorts of event or Pilgrimage where people choose to travel as a “Team” a “family” an organised group, to watch rugby, or play sport or music?

4.04 Who, with Eurostar, helped set a clearer example of what was possible than in all the years since the 1987 signing of The Channel Tunnel Act? Who said “This time, let’s make it work!” Who said “OK, if there is an obstacle, do not make it more impenetrable, bring me a plan to remove barriers to accessibility.”

4.05 Who said to Eurostar “Bring me the answers”; who gave more positive leadership, more intellectual courage, more imagination than many of us dared to hope for in the last 20 years?

5. Whatever the Chosen Proposed Route Eventually taken by High Speed 2 it must Deliver, for Individuals and Groups, Quicker and Easier Journeys for those in Wheelchairs from Northern Britain to Mainland Europe

5.01 High Speed Two can deliver un-paralleled advantages presently denied to wheelchair users and many persons with reduced mobility.

5.02 Who is now, and for the future, in charge of rolling out this service for everyone, week in week out, not just at Heathrow Terminal 5, or at St Pancras, but for the Channel Tunnel system and, via HS2, for Great Britain as a whole?

5.03 Direct services must include not just High Speed 1. Who will insist that High Speed 2 will and shall link directly to the Channel Tunnel, “without bottlenecks or built in delays”?

5.04 Wheelchair users, who benefit most from seamless journeys, and ordinary able bodied passengers alike may and shall board North of London Eurostars and their successor trains in Glasgow, Edinburgh, (Liverpool, Birmingham, Newcastle, Leeds and Sheffield; Reading, Cardiff and Bristol) travel directly through the Channel Tunnel to a wider variety of very popular European destinations including Avignon, Bordeaux, Cologne, Frankfort, Geneva, Milan, Lyons and Lourdes, even Bourg St Maurice in the Alps, not just Paris and Brussels.

5.05 The CO2 savings for Europe using rail, via seamless uninterrupted journeys through the Channel Tunnel, compared with road or air adds urgency to the acceptance and promotion of similar “joined up” proposals.

5.06 Former British Rail Director (Projects), Dick Keegan, puts forward similar arguments in favour of a better link between High Speed 1 and High Speed 2 with the link possibly established at Stratford International on High Speed 1. These arrangements would especially be helpful to people who use wheelchairs from the North of Britain planning to travel direct to mainland Europe.

5.07 Dick Keegan, whose work I have only read about, would appear to be someone with a certain proven professional experience and vision needed to “join up railway projects”. His evidence, put forward to the HS2 Consultation, leads me to hope that he might yet become an expert to drive the connectivity between the north of Britain and mainland Europe. Whoever does this work must be asked especially to prioritise the needs of persons with reduced mobility. Cyclists too will benefit as the surge in biking holidays using trains grows.

5.08 Better, more seamless, journeys via the Channel Tunnel would most especially benefit wheelchair users and all those hundreds of thousands of other travellers covered by the wider “social” definition of “Reduced Mobility”.

6. “Are You Disabled?”

(This evidence is all set in 16 point bold in case, like me, you have difficulty reading small print.)

At first glance it seems good that there is this Inquiry into: “The Effectiveness of Legislation for Transport for disabled People.

6.01 A bigger more troubling question remains: How is it still possible, in these days of “Access Statements” that so many Government and Parliamentary reports and inquiries on general national subjects still, so seldom, make any specific references to disability or the social model of reduced mobility, or even the elderly?

6.02 Should not Disability Discrimination legislation apply everywhere with no exceptions?

6.03 Should it not be embedded, in the DNA of any public actor, a determination now, deliberately to consider: “How Well & How Soon” can any particular infrastructure or transport project best make the environment more accessible for persons with any social model of reduced mobility, including those who use wheelchairs ?

6.04 This applies as equally to a new airport be it “Boris Island” or not, for London, or a new integrated passenger ferry terminal, or High Speed 2, as it does to Crossrail, Making it the “best possible” and not “just good enough” to satisfy the lowest legislative common denominator is the key.

6.05 What has happened to a National aspiration to excel? Has it been lost in “tick box satisfied compliance”?

6.06 Didn’t the Olympics prepare us quite well to excel and then to be inspired by the determination to conquer and the emulate the competitiveness of the Paralympics? Second best was never enough for any of them; it should not be for us.

6.07 From now on shouldn’t every inquiry make sure it does hunt diligently, to high light all the ways that, after thorough examination, the disabled can benefit at least as much as everyone else.

6.08 In other words the litmus test of everything we do in the country should be to remind everyone around us “If we get it right for the disabled, then it will be better, for everyone else as a well!” That is the true gift that the disabled offer to the rest of society and if we ignore it is our loss, everyone’s loss, as much as the disabled.

7 Conclusion

7.01 Sir Bert Massie, formerly Chairman of the Disability Rights Commission, speaking from his special elevating wheel chair in Westminster Hall, at the main event marking the dissolution of the Disability Rights Commission reminded everyone of this:

“The only honest answer to the Question: “Are you disabled?”

Is the answer: “Not yet!”

If all decision makers remembered Bert’s simple quotation in their own lives and work, and acted on it always, then the world would be a better place and an easier place in which to live and work for us all. Legislation must make things more free, not more encumbered.

Might it really be that simple? As Tanni wrote to me, so I ask the Committee: “Think about it”.

January 2013

Prepared 13th September 2013