Imagine having the freedom to go out alone in the evening. Imagine knowing that the transport system would get you home safely. As a disabled London resident that’s not my reality. The capital has one of the best public transport systems in the world, yet only about a quarter of underground stations are fully accessible for me.
I am still glad to live in London. Unlike other parts of the country, the buses are usually wheelchair-accessible and the pavements passable. The national train network in theory offers a system called Turn Up & Go, so disabled passengers can travel spontaneously. In practice, most of the rest of the country requires you to book assistance 24 hours in advance. In London, transport runs late in the evening, meaning – theoretically – I can go out late.
The rail network in London relies on staff-assisted travel for many disabled passengers. As a wheelchair user, I have to wait for staff to get a ramp and put me on the train. This is often in the vestibule, leaving me trapped between two sets of doors while passengers push past me, sometimes moving my wheelchair for their convenience.
Even when the train has a wheelchair space, I’m rarely put in it. If I want to get off, I have to hope the staff remember me. They often don’t, leaving me either shouting at passengers to find platform staff or relying on friends. Otherwise I have to eat into my care hours and bring a carer with me who can find staff when I’m inevitably forgotten. Of my last six journeys, I was only met correctly on two – the rest of the time the ramp didn’t arrive or it was sent to the wrong part of the train.
I could use the tube for part of the journey, but when I travelled from Covent Garden to Lewisham recently Covent Garden station was inaccessible and I had to wheel to Charing Cross. After cancellations and a long wait for a train, I was told the lift at Lewisham was broken and I would have to change line at London Bridge. There, I was sent back and forth between two platforms, repeatedly being misinformed about my route home. The journey took me almost two hours, leaving me ill, exhausted and late for my medication. It should have taken 30-40 minutes.
The truth is that the time, comfort and effort of disabled passengers is not a priority across our transport network
Despite constant campaigning by Transport for All, accessibility isn’t a priority for the public network. There are countless improvements that could be made to the physical structure including lifts to all platforms, at all stations; faster lift repairs (lifts at Waterloo East and Lewisham, for example, are in my experience frequently out of order); faster hearing loop repairs; automated ramps from train to platform level; and proper wheelchair spaces on all trains.
And there are many other things that could be done to improve the experience of disabled people travelling, such as a Turn Up & Go system that actually works across the country, more dedicated assistance staff, and free travel nationally for carers and assistants.
We also need a way of alerting platform staff when we’re trying to get off the train and nobody has come to meet us, and for staff to respond quickly when we call for help via the platform help points.
An app through which we can request assistance as we travel, offering updates when lifts are broken or lines are delayed, would be hugely helpful, as would a single point of contact to take responsibility for our whole journey. There should be enough station staff to guide disabled passengers to their train where needed, with no unstaffed stations, and buses should automatically stop for any waiting passengers. There should also be beacons at bus stops and platforms to guide visually and cognitively impaired passengers, visual and verbal announcements on all transport, and provision for taxis where an accessible route is prohibitively longer.
The truth is that the time, comfort and effort of disabled passengers is not a priority across our transport system. Nobody is responsible for refunding the additional care costs incurred because of the length of a journey. Nobody pays for taxis when a necessary tube route isn’t accessible. Nobody takes responsibility for making sure we can complete our journeys. Instead we’re left to fend for ourselves, rushing between platforms, constantly misinformed and often unable to travel alone. This isn’t good enough.
• Jamie Hale is a UK-based poet and artist, and an activist with groups such as Disabled People Against Cuts, and Not Dead Yet UK