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TX: 21.07.03 - HOW ACCESSIBLE IS TRANSPORT TO DISABLED PEOPLE?



PRESENTER: PETER WHITE

PART ONE
WHITE
Now just how accessible is Britain to disabled people? As I said at the beginning throughout this week You and Yours is going to be investigating how feasible it is for people with disabilities to take a full part in the life of the country. And how much difference new laws, coming into force next year, will actually make. Today we start with public transport and this morning we've done a bit of an experiment really, we've invited three people with varying disabilities to converge on Birmingham for us and to tell us about their experiences on the way. Peter Cooke lectures at the Nottingham Trent Business School, he's a wheelchair user, set off this morning from his home just outside Oxford. Tony Winstanley teaches in Derby, he is profoundly deaf himself and we'll talk to him with the help of his interpreter - he travelled from Worcester. And Kirsten Herne is totally blind, she's an organisational coach who travelled from London by tube and train. They all join us from Pebble Mill. Kirsten if I can start with you first - how did it go?

HERNE
Surprisingly well actually. Everybody turned up when they needed to turn up and were very courteous and they got me onto the train and they got me off the train. I was quite shocked.

WHITE
What normally happens then?

HERNE
Well what normally happens is if I book in advance, because I'm a very compliant traveller, I always book in advance, they don't always turn up actually, that's what normally happens and it's very difficult, I frequently find myself hanging around on platforms waiting for people to turn up or not meeting my taxi, if I'm coming by cab, or once or twice not getting off at the right stop because they haven't actually made an announcement.

WHITE
I mean that strikes me as fairly crucial for a totally blind person - actually being given information as the journey takes place.

HERNE
Yes and this morning's journey was fine, I have had journeys in the past where that has not been the case on fairly sort of long haul trains where they've actually completely forgotten to announce certain stations and one particular time I actually had to stop the train as it was going out of the station and march all the way through the train to the other side - delaying it by 10 minutes because I had to get off because they hadn't told me I was at Axminster.

WHITE
So you're saying you have to be fairly assertive if you're going to be a successful disabled traveller really?

HERNE
Yes I do actually, I have to kind of be rather patient as well because I'm often plonked in a corner and told to wait, this morning I wasn't.

WHITE
Right, let's move to Peter Cooke. You use a wheelchair, you went from near Oxford, how did your journey go?

COOKE
I had quite an exemplary journey this morning Peter.

WHITE
You realise this is terrible news for us - we asked people to do this kind of thing.

COOKE
It gets worse. On Birmingham station - Birmingham New Street station - I was nearly killed by somebody with a very large rucksack, with a pair of climbing boots hanging on the bottom, they managed to knock my spectacles off turning round, which was not a pleasant experience. But in terms of the - in terms of the public transport, yes, the train from Oxford to Birmingham was excellent but I did notice that at Oxford station there's a large sign by the disabled parking spaces that says - these are going to be closed, it's going to be a tow away zone for two weeks and nobody could tell me where I'd be able to park in those two weeks.

WHITE
What about access to the trains themselves, physical access to the trains?

COOKE
Physical access is - I was helped on this morning, there is somebody at Oxford station who helps people on to the train. Yeah pretty good but I don't like being talked down to, I don't like being talked to in baby language, I don't like being talked to very, very simply and said we get the baby on the train.

WHITE
So is the problem more one of attitude in that case for you than of actually getting on and off, getting on and off platforms?

COOKE
It's a mixture Peter, sometimes it's very good, sometimes it's very bad. For example, coming to Birmingham last year I was told, when I asked if I could have assistance to get off the train, the train guard told me that they couldn't guarantee they could take me off the train until Manchester because I hadn't booked three days ahead.

WHITE
So this issue of booking is a key one. Let me turn to Tony Winstanley. Now your problems must be different again. First of all, how did your journey go?

WINSTANLEY
Well there were quite a few problems this morning, particularly because I travel from my local station and I caught - I should have caught the connecting train to Worcester but it was half an hour late so I wasn't going to get the connection. So I had to rely on the goodwill of other passengers on the platform to ask - to actually ask them what was happening, what time did they expect the train to arrive at but I mean they didn't know themselves, so there was no monitor for me to read so it was a huge, huge problem this morning.

WHITE
What would be the key things that would improve the travelling experience for you and other profoundly deaf people?

WINSTANLEY
Well really we need visual monitors so that we can actually see what's happening and for the train companies to actually tell us that the train is actually late, instead of just being stranded on the platform just waiting for a train. I mean if there is a change of platform I've got no idea, so I have to rely on other people and just really follow them or write things down and communicate that way, but it is very, very difficult. I mean most - generally most people are very, very good and very helpful but I do have to rely on people in the ticket office and for example, this morning they were very, very busy, there was a huge queue behind me and they just didn't have time. And I was really delaying everybody else and they just handed me a leaflet and told me to read that. But this morning I would really say that people generally, particularly passengers, were very helpful.

WHITE
Well thank you all very much - Tony Winstanley, Peter Cooke, Kirsten Herne for first of all undertaking the journey for us and also for putting this whole thing in perspective. Later on we're going to be exploring what can be done about some of the difficulties disabled travellers experience and discovering that what the law says and what public bodies, such as the Strategic Rail Authority say that they can afford may be very different.

PART TWO
WHITE
And now back to the issue of disability access which we're going to be examining throughout this week. So first of all, what does the new law actually say? In just over a year, October 2004 to be precise, the obligations on businesses, on public authorities, voluntary organisations, sports stadia, even churches become theoretically much tougher. They must remove physical barriers which make it impossible or unreasonably difficult for disabled people to use their services, and they must also adapt those services if policies stop people from using them. But what exactly in plain English does that actually mean? I'm joined by Marie Pye, who's policy director of the Disability Rights Commission. Marie, in straightforward language what will people have to do in October 2004 that they don't do now?

PYE
Basically they're actually have to look for the actual physical features of the building or the area they deliver their services from. It's kind of time to get the screwdriver out really, to actually start making changes to those buildings. At the moment they need to make changes to things like policies or practices or provide auxiliary aids like a chair to sit in, in the queue, while you're waiting. But October 2004 it's literally trying to actually start making those changes to the building. Whether you're a shop, whether you're a park, whether you're a pub or whether you're a GPs surgery.

WHITE
But surely don't you actually need to make them before then? I mean people have had what about nine years - this Act was passed in 1995 - and a lot of people then said - 2004 that'll never come - and people have had quite a long time to put these things - to get ready for this haven't they?

PYE
October 2004 is when the legal duties come into force but the government gave that long lead in time basically to give people time to get this together because it's much easier, it's much simpler to make changes to a building if you do it over time with a refurbishment programme when you're already making the changes. I think our concern at the Disability Rights Commission is so many people have just sat on their laurels really or done a good impersonation of an ostrich and stuck their head in the sand and that's not really good enough.

WHITE
Do disabled people have to bring cases before anything actually can be done, in other words before the law is activated?

PYE
Yes, the DDA is an individually enforced piece of legislation. So yes disabled people have to take cases but we don't want that happen, we don't want disabled people to have to take cases, we want service providers to start making these changes, well preferably several years ago, but at least now. Some have, some are doing very well, others definitely aren't.

WHITE
Right now can I - specifically about transport, which is what we're dealing with today, the actual vehicles aren't actually covered by this law are they?

PYE
No what's covered is the stations. So in legal terms the mode of transport, i.e. the thing with the wheels on it isn't actually covered but everything else - the station, the information, the booking line, the buffet in the station, the coach company, the taxi office - are all covered by the Disability Discrimination Act.

WHITE
Okay, well we will come back to that then of course. Not a lot of point in having accessible trains if you can't board them from the station of your choice in the first place. Catherine Walsh lives in Birmingham and she uses a wheelchair to get around, she leads a full social life and therefore needs to travel but for her, although using local trains is often the best option, to do that she's got to plan her journeys rather like a military campaign. Well we've actually accompanied Catherine as she set out to conquer Birmingham by rail starting at Longbridge Station.

ACTUALITY
WALSH
We're waiting for a ramp to appear. The ramp on this side of the station is locked with a key which is kept in the office. So if there's no staff in the office and there's only ever one person usually you can't use the train.

STATION PERSON
Here we are.

WALSH
Thank you very much. See you later.

STATION PERSON
Yeah have fun.

WALSH
Hopefully he's phoned through to Selly Oak to tell them I'm getting off there. I think compared to how other people fare disabled people fare much worse on the railways and everybody complains about the railways anyway. But there's a toilet cubicle up there and it's totally inaccessible - narrow doorway - and I don't think there's any plans to change them so they're accessible.

It takes such a long time using public transport, it takes your whole life up really if you're trying to use buses and trains.

They're waiting with a ramp for us.

STATION PERSON
There you go my dear.

WALSH
Thank you very much.

STATION PERSON
Unfortunately we don't have lifts at Selly Oak. The best place to get a lift if you need to go over to another side is university - because they're the only ones who have got a lift.

WALSH
So you think I should have gone to the university station instead?

STATION PERSON
That's the only station with a lift, Northfield should have told you, if you wanted to go back.

WALSH
We really wanted to try and get off at Northfield, Northfield is my local shopping centre.

STATION PERSON
Okay, the only other way round to the platform is out through the car park, you have to go a short walk on the main road, turn right and then back up Healey Road and there's all ramps on that side to get back on to the car park.

WALSH
Okay.

We're just going round the roadworks they're doing, they're making a car park, I can't quite see the way out here actually. There's no drop curb here so we've got to go on the road. We've just had to come on to the main road, which is the A38, it's the busiest road in Birmingham, because there's no access to the pavement. We're just turning up a side road in Selly Oak, going up yet another steep incline and it's a what - a good third of a mile I would think from one side of the platform to the other. It's a bit like going up Ben Nevis really. It's taken about 10, 15 minutes to get from one side of Selly Oak station to the other. I mean you can't be in a hurry can you. I think it's important to impress on Central Trains that even though there may be access on some of these stations that the access is quite inadequate, I mean you've got to be thick skinned to really go on the trains I think and it shouldn't be that way. I've been described by somebody at Longbridge station as infamous, well why should I be infamous because I want to use the train like anybody else?

Just about to get on the train back to Northfield. Well we're just waiting holding the train up. We're waiting to find out about getting off really.

STATION PERSON
Sorry about this, I've never had this incident before, there's not an actual lift at this station, there's only steps on this side. So the only thing we can suggest is we'll take you to Longbridge, take you off the train there and then you have to use the lifts and go up and over the other side and then get the next train back down.

WALSH
It's quite bizarre that there's steps on one side and a ramped access on the other. I mean if everybody had that problem they'd soon change it wouldn't they?

WHITE
The travels and travails of Catherine Walsh. Well with me is Ann Bates, Ann is a wheelchair user herself, she's a member of the Rail Passengers' Committee for Southern England and also she advises on disability for a number of train operating companies, including South West Trains, South Central, Connex, GNER and Virgin Trains. Ann, you had your own experience a few months ago, I think, of inaccessible platforms, rather like Catherine's only worse I think.

BATES
Yes I think it was - I tried to get off a station - at City Thameslink and the lift wasn't working and I ended up going to Luton airport in order to cross the line and really what was so sad about it was that I had booked, they did have my mobile phone number and it would have been so easily avoided with a little bit of staff training.

WHITE
It was interesting listening to the three people we asked to travel this morning because it sounded, from what they were saying, that often it's as much about training, about attitude, about what people say to you, about visual boards for someone who's profoundly deaf, as it is about - about actual physical access.

BATES
It is, I mean there's a great misconception that disability is all about wheelchair users and huge ramps and vast sums of money. The biggest plus that anyone could do is to institute a decent training programme. So if you are frustrated because you can't get off the train somebody knows how to speak to you properly. In the example just now the amount of time that was spent getting that - with the aborted attempt to get her off the train - would have incurred fines on the train involved.

WHITE
But clearly nonetheless part of the problem is not enough ramps, not enough lifts and as Catherine said the rather bizarre situation of having good access on one side of a platform and not on the other - that's daft isn't it?

BATES
Oh yes, I mean the whole railway system was put forward in Victorian times and what's happened, as the years have gone on, that people have had bits of good ideas and what we really need to do now is make sure that when money's spent it's spent in a sensible manner, not just throwing a bit of money on one side of a station and not the other. So we've got to use a bit of common sense about it.

WHITE
But I mean a lot of this money is supposed to have been spent by 2004, surely it's not going to be?

BATES
I have grave doubts as to how much is going to be done. According to the SRA there is a fund called Access for All which was meant to help with funding some improvements but I don't believe that there's any funds left in this.

WHITE
We'll come back to this because given that the coming into force of this part of the Disability Discrimination Act was delayed from coming into force until 2004 to give businesses and public bodies time to prepare for it, can we assume that Catherine's problems will soon be over? Well apparently not. The West Midlands Public Transport Authority has said it wants a large number of the stations in the Birmingham area to be made accessible, it recognises that they're not and it wants them to be upgraded but nobody is able to come up with the necessary cash to make this possible before 2004. Councillor Richard Worral, the authority's chairman, told me more about what they really wanted to achieve.

WORRAL
Well what we would like to achieve is a hundred per cent accessibility at every single rail station in the West Midlands because only when you have hundred per cent accessibility will the thing work for people who've got an access issue.

WHITE
So what's stopping you?

WORRAL
The SRA says it has no money to finish the job that we did quite a lot on up to privatisation in 1997, since when it's been the responsibility of the privatised elements of the rail industry and we've achieved practically no progress in terms of getting access to the remaining local rail stations since then.

WHITE
Can you just explain for me the extent of inaccessibility, I mean how many of the stations are not fully accessible?

WORRAL
We would say at least 17 to 20 out of a total of 65-ish.

WHITE
Could you perhaps just tell me a bit about the process that you actually have tried to go through in order to get the money to make these stations accessible?

WORRAL
In the last year we've been talking to the SRA, given that they have cash flow problems, could we have an arrangement whereby we put money up front to finish the job on the basis that they, at a later stage, would then reimburse us when they have the resources to do that.

WHITE
So in effect you're offering them a loan?

WORRAL
Yes in effect. Meanwhile what the SRA are saying is that they will not respond at all because they have no money, they will await legal actions I think taken by individuals. At that stage then they might come up with some money because they'll be in a position of having to. That doesn't really seem the best way to deal with this.

WHITE
You're saying that they say there's no question of any money until somebody actually takes them to court?

WORRAL
Yes.

WHITE
What are you, as a transport authority, proposing to do?

WORRAL
We're looking at the legal aspects because it's unclear at this stage under the DDA whether it would be down to an individual affected person to take the SRA or the train operating company to court because they couldn't get on or off a station or whether someone corporately, such as a passenger transport authority, ourselves for example in this region, could do it on behalf of everyone in relation to all stations, which is what we'd prefer to be able to do but it may not be possible.

WHITE
Your concern that you're failing some of the people in your constituency?

WORRAL
Oh that's the whole problem isn't it - total and utter frustration because we are one of the richest countries in the world and we can't deal with this. I find it appalling and extraordinary. There are loads of real people out there that are the casualties of this and I'm terribly, terribly frustrated with this because it ought to be possible to do it and to have done it by the time it becomes a legal requirement anyway, that's just simply not going to happen.

WHITE
Councillor Richard Worral. So just who in all this alphabet soup of organisations is supposed to come up with this money? Is it the Strategic Rail Authority or individual train operating companies, is it the government or extra money from Europe? Ann Bates what's your understanding of the actual legal position of where this money is supposed to come from?

BATES
I think originally when the SRA were letting 20 year franchises the train operating company was meant to come up with a good deal of this money. Now the 20 year franchises are just a memory and the new franchises are for seven or three years in the case of South West trains. And each of these new franchises actually have written into it that disability is not covered by the franchise holder. So - and that it will be taken forward by the SRA at a later date. So really under the new franchises it's fairly and squarely with the SRA.

WHITE
We did, of course, invite the Strategic Rail Authority to appear on this programme and we did give them 11 days notice of this, they have told us this morning that they don't think it's appropriate to appear at the moment, they say they're working very hard to solve these problems and they'd rather spend the time solving them than talking to us. What they've said about the issues is, in a statement: "Disabled access is a vital issue for the rail industry which wants to attract more people to the railways rather than put them off using it. That's why," they say, "with the rail companies we're now identifying and prioritising the improvements. Only when that process is complete can decisions be made on funding. This applies to Birmingham as to the rest of Britain." Marie Pye you've been talking to the Strategic Rail Authority or at least the Disability Rights Commission has been, what are they saying?

PYE
They're saying that they're working towards this. I think our concern is that the working towards something which becomes a legal duty in just over 14 months time is possibly going to present a few problems. This is the Strategic Rail Authority and I think taking a strategic approach is what has been desperately needed for a long while. I'm interested to hear what Ann was saying that the new franchises so that a national plan will be dealing with this at a later date, I think it will be very useful if that later date were named now because time is rapidly running out for this.

WHITE
But do you have any real powers - you say you're talking to them but what can the Disability Rights Commission tell them that they don't know already, which is the stations are supposed to be accessible by October 2004?

PYE
We can try and help and advise, which is generally what we do with a whole range of service providers. And come October 2004 we can support disabled people who want to take individual cases. But that is all that the Disability Discrimination Act allows us to do. Although we are increasingly looking at taking group cases, so this may not just be one person we'll be taking a case on behalf of or with, it could be 30, 40, 50, 60 or a 100 people.

WHITE
But at the moment what happens if a case is brought - I know it can't be brought until after October 2004 but what happens if a case is brought, who will it be brought against?

PYE
The likelihood is that - and cases can be taken at the moment because there are already some duties under the Disability Discrimination Act that are already in - they'll be taken against the train operating company as they are the service provider. So I'm afraid that the buck stops with them. There might be some situations where Network Rail may have some liability here because if they've taken responsibility for things like lifts or major works. But the train operating companies I'm afraid are very much in the firing line here.

WHITE
Ann Bates what do you - you advise train operating companies, what are you telling them?

BATES
I'm telling them exactly what's just been said that no matter what the Strategic Rail Authority says in their franchise agreement that they must make plans for themselves. I think it's really important that money is still being spent on the railways and it's really important that this money is spent wisely.

WHITE
I mean what a lot of people will perhaps say, listening to this, is we may well support disabled people's right to travel but the fact of the matter is that it's well known that the Strategic Rail Authority is very short of money, it's had some money taken away from it by the government, we know the train operating companies are also, many of them, in trouble, we also know that there are concerns about safety on the railways - aren't people like Strategic Rail Authority - they haven't said it to us but they've said it in other quotes - safety should be our first priority, perhaps disability access comes somewhere behind that?

BATES
No one's arguing against safety, of course everyone wants to be safe, I want to be safe in the same way as all the other passengers on the train want to be safe but there is an issue that under government guidelines any money that's spent on the railways should include inclusivity and I think again we should get away from the idea that it's all about physical access - there are things that can be done for relatively small amounts of money for people with different disabilities than wheelchair users which really must get going now.

WHITE
But if people have the sort of experiences like Catherine had, and indeed you had yourself, what are they supposed to do? Do you think come October 2004 there will be law suits if these - and we're not talking about - just about train stations but bus stations, other forms of transport - do you think we're likely to see cases?

BATES
Oh I think very much so, unless there's a major change of attitude from the top, I think there is - I think there are a range of management ways to get round this going from hub stations where one station is made accessible and disabled people are bussed or taxied from other stations but to sit and do nothing is really a very, very short-sighted option.

WHITE
And presumably in just a word Marie that wouldn't - if that causes a great deal of inconvenience that wouldn't fit in with the law either would it - buses, other alternatives?

PYE
But the worst option here is doing nothing, as Ann has said, that is undoubtedly going to bring people into conflict with the law, which is the last thing we want because that's not really going to make the transport system as accessible as we want as quickly as we want.

WHITE
Maire Pye, Ann Bates thank you both very much indeed.

Another key element of access covered by the 2004 act is the ability to book your journeys and having equal access to the best deals, which is highlighted in a report out today. Increasingly best bargains are to be found on the net and today an organisation called Ability Net, which monitors the uses of technology for disabled people has produced a report on the accessibility of the websites of nine airlines. The report says that visually impaired people who try to use these services would find it virtually impossible to do it. None of the airlines come out very well but of the nine Virgin Atlantic emerges the worst. The way you would actually use this is with synthetic speech on your computer and Virgin's sounds a bit like this.

VIRGIN BOOKING
Welcome to Virgin Atlantic - object, object, image with no alt text, images left spacer .gif, start of form one, image with no alt text, images left spacer .gif …

WHITE
Well, sounding pretty much like gobbledegook to me. I'm joined by Robin Christopherson who's Abilitynet website monitor. Robin Christopherson tell me a bit more about this report, what basically do you say?

CHRISTOPHERSON
Well basically there are nine websites, as you say, that have been reviewed and none of them have come out particularly well, as you say. We've given a rating of five stars where five is very accessible, one is very inaccessible and three meets a base level of accessibility.

WHITE
What does the winner get?

CHRISTOPHERSON
The winner gets two - two out of five - so doesn't meet a base level of accessibility.

WHITE
And that was Easyjet I think, so although they won they're not what you would call achieving a baseline of accessibility?

CHRISTOPHERSON
That's right and I think that it's indicative of the state of every website as a rule and that's why we've done this report, this state of the e-nation report, that will come out quarterly looking at different sectors of the industry. So even though they're all very poor they're all - they're in good company because that's very much the current state of play.

WHITE
Why does it matter?

CHRISTOPHERSON
Like you say very much things are more and more online based and people can get bargains, sometimes goods and services are only available over the internet and that disproportionately impairs people that are disabled because often their access to the outside world and the goods and services and information that it offers is vastly easier through the internet and through a computer simply because a computer is a great enabler.

WHITE
Robin Christopherson thank you very much indeed. And we should say that Virgin Atlantic did, when they saw this report, they reacted very quickly, they've held up their hands and say they're actually trying to improve this access and they've asked for meetings with the Abilitynet company and those are going to take place.






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