‘Diary of A Public Transport Virgin’ continues…. written by Ian Loynes
You know what it’s like when something happens to you, which initially doesn’t seem a big deal; then after a while it dawns on you just how massive the implications are?
Well I had several of those in the immediate aftermath of my seizure, especially being told that driving was off the menu. However, after a while the penny dropped on another biggie – I wouldn’t be able to drive up to Norfolk to see my friends and family; my heart sank, particularly as I was desperate to get up there to see one of my closest friends.
We’ve known each other for over 30 years, both having been through a lot of life, you know the story; things you shouldn’t have to experience. We were close friends when I lived in Norfolk, and have managed to pull off the fantastic trick of staying close when I moved to Southampton and we were living 200 miles apart.
Anyway, to get back to the point; we had a dilemma, wanting to see each other, but neither of us able to drive a car. We agreed that the best way we could actually get to see each other by each getting a train and meeting in the middle, London.
The date was set: Bank holiday Monday, and venue: the Royal Observatory in Greenwich. I was pleased because I’d never been there before and I am very interested in astronomy.
(Let’s be clear here though, my interest is in the science of astronomy, not in looking through binoculars at seemingly identical spots of light or patterns of stars. I love watching Patrick Moore and ‘The Sky at Night’ – he is a fabulously eccentric character. The show is really good at making astronomy easy to understand yet without ‘dumbing down’ (which really aggravates me [Step forward ‘Horizon’, a once amazing science programme, now an absolutely patronising travesty]). However, in my opinion, ‘The Sky at Night’ is half great, half a yawn – as they always spend half the show going on about this or that constellation which is now visible in the night sky, and how to find it. It’s such a waste to me, especially with the show only being 20 minutes long to start with!)
Sorry, again; to get back to my blog: (by the minute, sounding more and more like a Ronnie Corbett Monologue!)
So, we’d agreed to meet at Greenwich, how should I get there?
Getting to London is easy, something I do regularly for work.
The train company is: South West Trains, travelling from Southampton Parkway Station to London Waterloo station.
All train companies expect passengers to book 24 hours in advance if they need assistance onto the train. I almost never do this, as I find it hard to plan my life so precisely in advance (and anyway, everyone else can just turn up and get on a train without notice, so why should it be different for a wheelchair user? – I like to be spontaneous and often it just is not possible to know what time you will be coming home). Nine times out of ten, I just turn up at the station and ask for assistance on to the next available train. The stations I use (Southampton Central, Southampton Parkway and London Waterloo) are very good about this and cope with my turning up unannounced. The process for getting on the train for wheelchair users is very easy, the assistant just takes you to the right point on the platform (there are several designated wheelchair spaces on every South West Train), puts down a portable ramp and, up you go into one of the wheelchair spaces. When you get to your destination, the person who put you on will have radioed ahead so that an assistant is ready to ramp you off when you get there. This system is not foolproof, and I prefer to travel with someone just in case no ramp is ready when I get to my destination.
Whilst not perfect, South West Trains are in my experience the best when it comes to wheelchair access, there being space for two wheelchair users to sit next to each other, and seats for a PA/friends to be with you as well. This cannot be said for all train companies. The only downside is that there are no wheelchair user spaces in First Class!
NB: I will post a separate blog soon with more information about booking assistance onto trains; and some of the issues to be careful about. I will also post a separate blog about the pros and cons of a Disabled Person’s Railcard and the separate scheme for Personal Assistants to travel at reduced cost.
Once you get to London, there are various ways to get from Waterloo to Greenwich; London Taxi, London Bus or Tube/DLR (Docklands Light Railway). All these should be accessible to me and my wheelchair. I use London taxis all the time whilst at work, and have used the Underground/DLR and London bus once. Which one should I choose?
London Taxi is a safe option – all London Taxis have to be wheelchair accessible, newer ones have fold out ramps with extensions for steep angles. Older taxis have gutter ramps which are kept in the boot. Now-a-days, I never have a problem with London Taxis, except for some drivers who don’t seems to understand that wheelchairs don’t cope well if the ramp angle is too steep. I always ask the driver to stop alongside a kerb to reduce the ramps angle.
London Buses are a bit of an unknown quantity to me. I believe that all London buses have to be wheelchair accessible these days. I have only used them once, last year. Sadly I don’t know the routes very well; I suspected that getting from Waterloo to Greenwich would involve changing buses along the way. I’d welcome comments from readers about London buses and how a visitor to London can get the best out of them.
Tube/DLR is also mostly an unknown quantity to me. I have used the Tube before, when I was walking and could use escalators. Once I sussed out the maps, the Tube was fairly easy; but as I said, I was walking then. Since I started using a wheelchair, I have only used the Tube once, to get from Waterloo to the Millennium Dome (now the O2 arena). From what I understand, some of the Tube is wheelchair accessible; some is not. Albeit the situation is improving as time goes on. I looked on the Internet for help on access and found the following link useful: http://www.tfl.gov.uk/gettingaround/14091.aspx. From my research it was possible to get from Waterloo to Greenwich, by catching the Tube at Waterloo and swapping to the DLR at Canary Wharf. (So far as I know, the whole of the DLR is wheelchair accessible throughout – readers comments would be helpful here too)
So, which public transport option did I take? Basically, I wimped out and got a taxi to Greenwich. I wish though I hadn’t; it was easy and stress free, until I saw the cost: £26! (Bank Holiday supplement didn’t help).
My friend met me at the Observatory, after a slight mix up where she went to Waterloo to pick me up, only to find I’d left in the taxi before she got there!
I had a lovely day at Greenwich Observatory, a great day out, good for children especially as it is fun as well as educational. From the top of the hill we could see the site of the 2012 Olympics and Canary Wharf amongst other attractions. (Bear in mind though, it is a steep hill and a long hill – my battery was not happy when I got to the top, and my friends legs were knackered – good excuse for a tea and hot dog!). Greenwich Park is a lovely place; tranquillity in a massive metropolis. Afterwards we went to see the Cutty Sark, but couldn’t see anything as it was all boarded up after the horrible fire which did so much damage in 2007.
When it was time to head off home, I had a dilemma; I wasn’t keen on a £26 taxi trip back (didn’t have that much cash apart from anything!); but whilst I knew the DLR/Tube should be OK, I wasn’t keen on going on my own. Good on my friend, we agreed to get the DLR together to Canary Wharf, and she would see me off the DLR and on to the Tube, before going her own way to Liverpool Street and back to Norfolk.
Now, here’s the rub, the ticket from Greenwich to Waterloo was £2.50! I’d paid 10 times more than necessary, simply because I wimped out and jumped in a taxi.
The DLR was fine for access, just had to be a little careful to ensure my front wheels didn’t get jammed in the small gap between platform and train. Wheelchair users do end up by the door, as there are no wheelchair spaces, but not too much of a problem.
When we got to Canary Wharf there is a short walk from the DLR to the Tube station, and once again the access was fine, just go to the right platform, wait for the train, and, of course MIND THE GAP!
When I arrived at Waterloo Tube station,again just a short walk to get to the mainline station. All very easy really, my wimpiness was completely unjustified and I do recommend the Tube/DLR (but just be careful about which stations are accessible and bear in mind slight height differences between some trains and some platforms ).
When I got back to Waterloo, I just went to the Information Kiosk on the main platform and asked for assistance onto the next train to Southampton, and as usual, had easy and practical assistance onto the train. One hour and 10 minutes later, the train arrives back at Southampton Parkway station, and after the usual nerves I always have in case no ramp is ready when the train stops, the assistant was there with his ramp to get me off the train.
So, my experience of getting to and from London, and around and about in London was good. Transport for London (http://www.tfl.gov.uk/ – Full of information about public transport in London ) should be praised for the immense progress they have made since the mid 1990’s when Disabled People had to resort to handcuffing themselves to buses to highlight just how excluded they were from London’s transport system.
See my separate blog shortly about DAN –Disabled People’s Direct Action Network
London is our Capital City, and therefore should set the standard for accessibility, and generally it does. Almost every other city in the UK has much to learn from London. Just getting an accessible taxi or bus can be a major undertaking in some cities.
Whilst there are still significant shortcomings (particularly on the Tube), I think London is generally a great example of how a public transport system can meet the access needs of most people, including most Disabled People.
So, a long and lovely Bank Holiday came to an end without any real access problems at all. I was just £23.50 worse off than I needed to be!
My equality score: 4 stars