Ups and downs of riding rails in a wheelchair
By Alex Taylor
I am a lucky Londoner. I got my hands on tickets for two Olympic events. As a wheelchair user, it is even more fortunate the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympics Games are the "most accessible yet" according to Transport For London (TfL).
However, after testing out my route from Stratford home to Hammersmith, I discovered the reality is very different.
The journey began well, the Jubilee Line from Stratford via Canary Wharf to Westminster benefiting most from the millions invested to make 66 of 270 Tube stations accessible.
Sadly, the experience on my return to Hammersmith made my blood boil.
There have traditionally been two types of access available for wheelchair users on the London Transport. Stations such as Waterloo or the Jubilee line offer access from both the station to the platform and the platform to the train. Others only provide one of these.
This means you can get off the train but remain unable to exit the station. In other cases the station may have a lift, yet no ramp to help the individual off the train.
My journey should have been easy, because Hammersmith is listed as one of just 16 stations provided with ramps in preparation for the Games. I even rang the TfL helpline before my journey to confirm the facilities.
Problems began from the moment I alighted at Westminster. No staff were present to assist me at the platform connecting to Hammersmith.
I reached customer services via help button and they agreed to send staff. Once they arrived, the cracks began to appear: "I'm sorry sir, there are not enough staff at Hammersmith to help you once you arrive.
"They haven't been trained. You need two members of staff to use the ramp. We can send you to Earl's Court or pay for a taxi to get you to Hammersmith."
I agreed to go to Earl's Court and then catch a bus.
Others take matters into their own hands. The GB Sitting Volleyball captain Claire Harvey said: "Sometimes I've had to get out of my chair and shuffle downstairs when there's been no alternative. I am lucky I am able and happy to do this, others may not."
It gets worse. Although the ramp and passenger assistance worked at Earl's Court, I was told the ramps were only a temporary measure, solely valid for the duration of the Games.
After September 9, staff will be prohibited from using the ramps until an insurance contract is renegotiated.
Scenarios such as this devalue the tremendous effort TfL is putting in to improving services.
Measures, including plans to deliver step free access at the busiest interchange stations, such as Paddington and Tottenham Court Road by 2018, are a move in the right direction.
But my experience taking the bus from Earl's Court to Hammersmith was infuriating. The driver initially refused me entry because there was a buggy on board. I pleaded with him, not only because I could fit on board but because it was pouring with rain.
I was allowed on after passengers protested. It should not have come to this. The Big Red Book given to all drivers states wheelchair users should be given priority by asking the passenger to fold up a buggy.
Campaign group Transport For All is fighting these problems through its manifesto, which includes a commitment to ensuring "penalties are implemented for bus companies that regularly fail to meet minimum standards in relation to access for wheelchairs, broken ramps, pulling into the curb and giving passengers enough time to sit down."
Director of performance for London Buses Clare Kavanagh said: "While we already have a very accessible bus service we want to continue to improve - working together with disabled and older passengers to further improve journeys.
"We are doing a range of things - making it easier for bus drivers to recognise which mobility scooters are safe to use on buses, and giving clearer guidance to bus drivers to inform passengers with buggies that they should fold down the buggy to make room for a wheelchair user.
"We continue to listen to disabled and older passengers and will make further improvements in the coming months."
However, my journey continued. I arrived in Hammersmith dejected but hopeful for some answers about the insurance issue and staffing problems.
The station supervisor would only say: "I know nothing, there is no money, ring the helpline."
If the reason for the lack of ramps is budget related, we are in serious trouble, as one rail ramp costs £385. TfL did not respond to my request for a response.
As I left the station, with my Freedom Pass in hand, entitling me to free travel, I heard the jovial voice of the Mayor of London Boris Johnson over the Tannoy system telling me to get ahead of the Games.
Many wheelchair users will be happy to get anywhere at all.