24 Jul 2013

No Go Britain – what has changed one year on?

It was hailed as the most accessible Olympic and Paralympic Games ever. One year on, a 24-hour Twitter trial shows that public transport for disabled people is improving – but is still hit and miss.

No Go Britain - the return of the Twitter trial

Last year, we heard horror stories of wheelchair users stranded on trains, visually impaired people unable to use their local bus, and nightmares even buying tickets in the first place.

Transport companies across the nation assured Channel 4 News, as well as the disabled passengers themselves, that things would get better – and indeed, promised that they already were as the nation hosted the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games.

But that was in the glow of the golden summer of 2012. In the cold, hard reality of a year later, have those promises been kept? Are things getting better? No Go Britain took to the virtual streets to find out.

Twitter trial

In a repeat of our experiment last year, we asked disabled passengers to tweet and Facebook their journeys for 24 hours to find out if Britain was still no-go.

For deaf and hearing impaired viewers, there is a transcript of this film at the bottom of the page.

The good news? It’s not a scientific sample, but it does seem that things are genuinely improving. Of all the messages we received, 41 per cent were positive – far more than our last trial, when the overwhelming majority of communications were negative.

This fits in with data gathered by Channel 4 News on accessibility complaints across the UK.

Of the six Passenger Transport Executives – the bodies which oversee public transport in the UK’s biggest urban areas – complaints about accessibility have fallen in the last year by just under a third.

In London in particular – the capital city and the Olympic host – complaints have fallen by 36 per cent in the last year.

Michele Dix, Transport for London’s equalities lead and managing director of planning, said: “Our staff work hard to ensure that all customers receive the standard of service and assistance that they would like, and regularly assist disabled passengers to help them get around the network quickly and easily.

“We are making major improvements to the accessibility of the network.”

Outside the big cities, the sheer number of companies who operates services makes complaints data harder to obtain – although data from the Office for Rail Regulation suggested that complaints fell across the board in the last year from 38 per 100,000 journeys to 34, and complaints about accessibility fell in proportion with this.

What has changed?

Zara Todd, who tweeted on Tuesday (see above) that she was having a good journey, came into the Channel 4 News studio a year ago to challenge transport bosses face-to-face about the problems she faced as a wheelchair user in London.

What does she think has changed a year on?

“There are still stations where when I know I’m travelling through them, my heart sinks. But it’s a lot better. From my experience transport has got better. I have a lot less competition now to get on buses with buggies because of the TFL campaign and re-training their drivers.

There are still stations where my heart sinks. But it’s a lot better. Zara Todd

“Maintaining the ramps after the Olympics was a good thing too,” she told Channel 4 News.

But she says it’s still not perfect, pointing out her concerns that not all of Crossrail will be accessible, and that journeys now can still involve several changes and modes of transport. However, she said the #nogobritain hashtag does help to draw attention to any difficulties she faces – once even getting her helped off a train when she tweeted that she was stranded.

Watch below: Transport for London and disability rights campaigners talk about working together to improve access.

Outside London?

Julie Thomas, who lives in Bridgend, joined Zara in the Channel 4 News studio a year ago. And she sums up a point that many agree on – while London has improved, in the rest of the country it can be a different story.

For example, she is still unable to use the buses in her town because they are not accessible.

I don’t use buses at all. Julie Thomas

“I don’t use buses at all. For me I can’t even cross to the bus stop to start with, then there’s no accessible information at the stop, so I can’t even do the first stage of getting on a bus,” she told Channel 4 News.

However, Julie has been working with her local companies to improve access for visually impaired people, helping to draw up a leaflet for drivers and hopes for more change. She has also found using trains with assisted travel booked in advance works reasonably well.

But overall, she thinks the legacy of the Olympics and Paralympics hasn’t really reached Wales.

“The only thing is I can quote – hang on, there’s supposed to be a legacy,” she said.

Many disabled travellers agreed that journeys could be very hit and miss. On Facebook, Peter Lockhart said: “At bus stop now and have just been refused access to bus. A wheelchair user was already on, and only allow one wheelchair user on a bus.”

He did then get on the next bus, adding that it was lucky he was on a frequent bus route. But others were less fortunate. @Bubblejet tweeted: “I’m a wheelchair user. Public transport spits in my face.”

And @planetjamie39 added: “Nothing on buses and trains. Staff attitudes towards disabled people still sadly lacking.”

Some, like @fireworks577, have just given up: “Since last year, we moved house so we didn’t have to be subjected to public transport.”

Far from perfect

Statistics from Passenger Focus, given to Channel 4 News, back up the impression that things are far from perfect.

For both disabled and non-disabled passengers, overall satisfaction levels with rail trips went down by 1 per cent last year, but it does remain fairly high – in the low 80s.

But in terms of the availability of train staff, the satisfaction levels of disabled passengers fell by 8 per cent to 43 per cent, a much greater fall than for non-disabled passengers, whose satisfaction fell by just 1 per cent to 45 per cent.

However, the train and bus companies say they are doing their best.

David Sindall, head of disability and inclusion at the Association of Train Operating Companies, said: “Huge progress has been made in improving rail services for disabled people, making their journeys quicker, easier and more straightforward than they used to be, with record numbers of disabled passengers now taking the train.”

He said that there were 72 million journeys made by disabled people on the rail network last year, an increase of 58 per cent compared to five years ago.

Read more and watch all of the No Go Britain films here 

“Operators are always looking for ways to make rail travel easier for disabled passengers as we know that accessible public transport plays a key role in allowing people to lead an independent life,” Mr Sindall added.

“Using the Games experience and closer working relationships formed across the rail industry, train companies are committed to making further improvements to services for all their passengers.”

And perhaps one day in the future disabled passengers will be able to agree with the tweet below that Channel 4 News was sent in recognition of the No Go Britain series – and that for disabled passengers and non-disabled alike, the wheels on the bus really do go round, and are fully accessible across the UK and at all times.

Working to improve
Regarding some of the tweets above and used on Channel 4 News on Wednesday, the companies mentioned sent the following statements.

Transport for London, regarding Bermondsey station gates, apologised to Christiane and added: "One of the wide aisle gates at Bermondsey was incorrectly set to exit instead of entry for a period...The station was staffed at the time, but unfortunately a member of staff had been called away. We recognise how useful the gates are to passengers, and that's why we have invested in installing 250 of them...alongside the other accessibility improvements we are making."

East Midlands Trains, regarding Nottingham station assistance, said: "We are very sorry to hear that Naomi didn't receive the assistance she needed from us when travelling from Nottingham station recently. Our passenger assistance team deal with hundreds of requests each week and ensure that all passengers travelling with us receive the best service possible. We're sorry that this appears not to have happened on this occasion and will be following it up to identify the cause of the problem."

South West Trains, regarding Norbiton station, said: "Step free access to both platforms at Norbiton station is available. We do everything we can to assist passengers with disabilities travelling on our services and stations. We are currently investing over £20m on making our stations more accessible through the Access for All programme."

Film transcript for deaf and hard of hearing viewers

The London Games were memorable in so many ways. The great sporting achievements, disabled athletes becoming household names, and the claim this was the most accessible games ever.

It was a claim we put to the test in our ground-breaking No Go Britain series which last year harnessed the help of disabled people from around the country. We tested not just transport to the Olympic Stadium, but across the country and the capital.

As your stories came flooding in, we realised we’d tapped a nerve. From Paralympic Superstars forced to throw themselves off trains… to teaching assistants left stranded by broken bus ramps.

With our help, disabled people confronted transport bosses about inferior, inaccessible services.

So, a year on, what’s the Paralympic Legacy for transport users? Have broken ramps been replaced medal-winning services, or are disabled people still being left on the side of the road?

Well, perhaps some things never change. In Oxford, 11 year old Aidan Blake was left feeling angry when a driver in a hurry refused to let him board a bus on a school trip with his classmates.

Aidan tells his story – last summer – on class trip – bus pulls up – has buggy on – driver says his school mates can get on – but aidan can’t cos buggy already on – which is wrong cos buggy shouldn’t be in the space…

But this time, something was different. Aidan’s classmates decided that if he couldn’t get on the bus, they wouldn’t either.

Why his mates are great. How he won’t give up and take no as an answer. And how the driver was bad for not letting him on.

Aidan has had less horrible experiences on buses since.

A spokesman for Stagecoach Oxfordshire said: “We are very sorry we let Aidan down. This particular case does not reflect our normal standard of service to customers with disabilities. Every year, we make a huge investment in training our driving team to help people with disabilities and make them feel confident about using the bus…. The driver involved was subject to disciplinary action and has also been retrained… we have issued a reminder to all of our staff about the importance of fully following our guidelines on assisting people with disabilities.”

Across the country, things have started to improve, especially in London. But there’s still some way to go, as Michael Hipwell knows only too well.

He was a bus driver before he broke his neck in a rugby accident. He still travels by bus, but in South London recently, a driver closed the doors on him, knocking him back onto the pavement, and drove off at speed.

The driver told me buggy in space – I put my wheels on step of bus to appeal to driver – to tell him that both buggy and wheelchair can fit – driver says I’ve told you no – then closes door – knocks him off – I was inches from wheel.

The driver in Michael’s case has been sent for retraining. But all new drivers should have already done a course, and today TFL have invited Michael in to attend a disability training workshop, to see how it’s done.

One of the most common complaints made by disabled people to no go britain is that drivers don’t intervene when pushchairs take up wheelchair spaces.
Here they’re trying to teach the trainee drivers the right approach.

Michael offered the benefit of his experience. This new driver found the session helpful.

Training helpful. It will be daunting first time I have passengers but training has helped improve confidence and how to talk to people.

And, a year on, there are signs of a real Paralympic legacy: an advertising campaign has encouraged people with buggies to make way for wheelchair users; and some tube stations have humps and ramps so disabled people can get on and off.

But, the fight goes on: there are no plans to make London’s new crossrail system 100% accessible.

And bus users in Darlington lost their legal battle to get a service they say they’re happy with. But they’re hoping to appeal.

Last year in Wales, we spoke to former headteacher Julie Thomas. She stopped using buses after she went blind, her confidence knocked by a bad experience.

Julie still won’t take a bus, but the campaign to improve bus access for blind people has gone national. Just as the Olympic torch travelled the country, the Royal National Institute of Blind People is currently on a nationwide bus relay tour. They’re demanding better service for travellers with vision impairments. At the start line here in Stoke – passengers and drivers are coming together to swap notes.

– Passenger explains to driver he likes to be told when he’s at his stop
– Blind lady is given a tour of bus cab by driver and realises the drivers can’t hear her unless she talks in a particular direction

The RNIB has produced a report on the problems – which they plan to deliver to the transport minister in London next month – travelling all the way by bus, of course.

You can chart their progress online – where we’ve also been asking youfor your stories. Has the Paralympic glow made Britain less no go for you?