A little while back, I did an interview with Colette Little from Colfessions about the accessibility of the TFL underground system in London! In today’s post I thought I’d run you through what we discussed, what I said then, and anything else I’d add, with what I know now.
In what ways do you think London transport needs to become more accessible?
What I said then:
The major problem is step free-ness, particularly with the tube, because 23%, around a quarter is step free, and that’s just not good enough. They advertise that as well – like that’s not something to advertise. If you think that’s good enough, that’s not. I think the other major issue is communication, because a lot of the times where I have issues with the tube, is that someone has put me on the train, and then not told whoever they’re supposed to tell, and there’s no one to get me off the train at the other end. Or the train terminates, and they don’t know I’m on it. Basically, they’re supposed to tell the line controller, who’s supposed to know, and they’re supposed to tell the station that I’m getting off. And either the station that I’m getting off at doesn’t get told so if I need a ramp to get off the train at the other end I don’t get it, or if the train terminates, and they haven’t told the line controller, if they know I’m on the train they’re supposed to stop it so I can get off and they can terminate it properly, and a few times they’ve stopped it at a station that isn’t accessible so I can’t get off, so I’ve been sat there at the door screaming or someone to get me off. Obviously in my manual chair, which is the other chair I use, I can’t get off the train myself I can’t wheel myself or anything, and in this, trying to get off a gap that’s say 4/5 inches, this would break (My electric chair that I’m currently sat in.) So, I would be sat at the door screaming and screaming and screaming for someone to get me off the train and it would take a good 10/15 minutes for them to figure it out, figure out that I’m on the train, and sort it out. Obviously in terms of my mental-ness it’s terrifying – the fact I go on the tube every single time and think will I be able to get off the train, will I be able to use the lift, will the lift work, will I have to go some weird way around to get to a lift that works. You always constantly think about that and you can’t just get on a train and think ‘its fine’. Unless I’m going to Kings Cross which is a station which I regularly use so I can roll on and off, and mentally, it’s draining frankly.
I don’t think that much has changed since that interview, in regard to this question. I know there’s been a raft of new lifts put in and stations redesigned, so that quarter of stations wheelchair accessible figure is likely to be much higher, but the TFL website still says a quarter so I can’t be sure on the new figure (Update: There are now 90 step free tube stations, which means 51% of the TFL network is step free). Those constant questions I mentioned about whether I’d be able to use lifts (or if they’d work) still exist, but I have to answer them less frequently now as I no longer live in London so only have to tackle the tube infrequently when I visit from Birmingham now.
Do you have any positive or negative specific instances, like stories, that you can tell me about?
What I said then:
The longest and most detailed story I can give you is we were coming home from a trip to Birmingham on the train. Got home to Euston, we were like ‘yeah we’ll get on at Euston Square and then Euston Square goes straight back to Uxbridge. Metropolitan line, the easiest trip you could make.’ No. We got the Euston Square and the lift was out, and my friend was with me, and I had to get my friend to go down the stairs to find someone to get them to call me a taxi because the policy that they put out is that if the lift is broken, or it’s not accessible somehow, TfL policy is that they’ll whether call you a taxi to take you home, or to the nearest accessible station – whichever is closest really. So, I was told they were calling me a taxi to Kings Cross, and I know it’s like a 10-minute walk, but we’ve walked all the way from Euston Square and if they owe me a taxi, they owe me a taxi. And the guy was like “that’s not the policy” so I had to screenshot the policy from the website and show it to him, and he was like “I’m going to get my manager because you’re lying.” And I was like “I’m showing you the website but okay.” So, his manager came up and was like “why have you dragged me here, she obviously is right, you know the rules, phone her a taxi.” We sat there and waited like half an hour for this taxi, and at that moment I was waiting on principle. Got in the taxi, we were told it has been paid for by TfL, so they prepaid it so we could just get out and wander off. Got to Kings Cross, got out the taxi, went to wander off, and he was like “no you need to pay me.” I was like “No, TfL have paid you, we’ve been told TfL have paid you” and he literally held us to ransom basically and wouldn’t let us leave until we had paid for the taxi and I was like “fine, just have your money.” Got to Kings Cross, and the Piccadilly line was broken from Kings Cross to we couldn’t use it and they’d already closed the Metropolitan line because it was a Wednesday and they close it at a certain time from Wembley onwards. So, then they had to put me on a Piccadilly line that went somewhere else. Stuck me on the Piccadilly line, so my friend had to change her plans and go to a different station to where she was going to go to because obviously a different lines, and then I was like “it’s fine, I’m getting a friend to pick me up from Uxbridge station anyway, so you can get off where you need to get off and I’ll just sit on the train that goes to Uxbridge and I can sit on a train by myself fine.” And this is when they terminated it at a station which I couldn’t get off at. So, I was by myself in my manual chair and there was no one else in the carriage and everyone just got off and I was there screaming for them to get off the train. And I had to keep texting and calling the friend who was picking me up and just say “this is how it is, this is how it is”, to the point where the guy at Uxbridge station was calling the line operator yelling at him about this whole situation, and ended up letting my friend through when I got to Uxbridge, letting her go on the platform without a pass or a ticket or anything because they knew I’d be in bits about this whole situation. It took, I think, four hours to get back from Euston with all that faff. It’s mad. There were very many different things, if one thing had happened it would be fine but there were about ten different things that went wrong. It was an interesting evening.
Not much has changed here either, this is probably still the worst access experience I’ve had on TFL. However, what has changed is that I’ve FINALLY written that Euston/Euston Square ordeal up as its own blog post!
By 2024, TfL aim for 38% of underground stations to be step free. Do you think this is enough stations, and is it soon enough?
What I said then:
I think it’s sooner than I expected it to be. It’s still not enough stations, we’re always aiming for 100%, but it’s movement and that’s good. I’m trying to be as positive as I can here. I think there’s movement in the right direction, and it’s at a speed quicker than I thought it would be, and there’s definitely stations in the past four years or so that I can access that I couldn’t when I moved to London. There is movement, and it’s at a decent pace, but it’s not quick enough. I’m still glad that there is movement and they are working towards something, but they could just be like “no that’s it, 27% is enough.” It’s fast, it will never be fast enough frankly until it’s 100% step free, but there is movement and I’m appreciative of that.
I think I was way more delicate with this answer than what I was probably actually thinking. While I’m appreciative of the fact that accessibility and redesigning stations isn’t instant. There’s no way the redesign is happening fast enough or at enough stations. NO. WAY. AT. ALL. I’d also be interested to see if that 38% figure and timeline is still going to be hit. Given that the website still says a quarter and we’re in 2020, I’m not holding out hope for the timeline to still happen. Update: There are now 90 step free tube stations, which by my calculations is 33% of the 272 overall Tube stations. So who knows, maybe we WILL hit that 38% goal by 2024!
How do you find out that a station has newly become step free, or there’s been a new lift installed?
What I said then:
Basically, I follow al the TFL lines on twitter because that’s the easiest way to find out if the lifts are broken. They tend to announce on there “the new plan is this” and they’ll announce a whole press release of this station by this year, this station by this year, or it just happens that I check the TfL journey planner and it gives me a new route which gives me a new station that I wouldn’t normally use. And I’m like “oh – they have step free access.” Also, the TfL access for all group I follow them quite a lot, so they seem to announce new places first because they have connections with TfL so it’s mostly social media.
I see and know less about the new lifts and step free access at tube stations because I don’t live there anymore so I’m way less likely to just randomly wander into a newly step free station these days, my routes tend to focus on places I’ve already previously been. One way I find out about new station access that I forget to mention was Geoff Marshall’s YouTube channel, that was specifically how I found about the Bond Street lifts and new entrance, back when those were new.
Finally, with the definition of accessibility encompassing blind people, deaf people, people with autism, people with dementia etc., do you think a 100% accessible London is foreseeable in the future?
What I said then:
No, I don’t think so. I think it’s going to be 100% accessible in terms of step free, I think that’s a possibility, but I think in terms of accessible in terms of all disability I don’t think that’s going to happen, just because I think that for people with autism and stuff like that it’s a lot about crowds, and obviously with it being London, in particular the central stations, it’s always going to be busy. So that’s going to have to be the way that it works. I’m not saying they have to put up with that, but I think that’s a fact that you can’t really get away from, the fact that particularly central London – I’ve been through Westminster in rush hour, and it’s too busy. I don’t think you can ever get away from that and I’m not sure how they would work to make that accessible. I think step free accessibility, 100%, it’s a possibility. I’m not going to say it’s going to happen because you know – TfL. But I don’t think full accessibility for everyone it going to happen. I would like to see it happen, but I don’t know.
I think this is the answer I wanted to change most since the interview. I feel like maybe it could be read like I was creating a pedestal for step free access and saying, “step free access has to happen and well nothing else is possible” and if that IS how it comes across, I want to make it clear that’s totally NOT what I meant. I just meant more in the fact of access for all is obviously the goal but, having watched TFL make an absolute farce of improving step free access, I’m not holding my breath on them being able to achieve access for all without making a mess of it.
I hope this is an insight into my views of accessibility on the London underground as a wheelchair user, thanks to Colette for interviewing me. If you want to read more of her blog you can check out the link I put right at the start of this post.
Em (Invincible Woman On Wheels)
This was eye-opening. Thank you both for sharing. I’m going to be honest (and it’s 100% my privilege showing), I have never considered some of these obstacles that you’ve had to face. Like, it’s never crossed my mind that someone may be stuck unable to get off when a train is terminating like that. I hope that with people opening up and sharing their experiences like this, we will see some shifts and changes moving in the right direction.
Thanks, glad it was eye opening, I hope to see changes too
This was really eye-opening. Those of us who are mobile often take our privilege for granted and don’t think about how lucky we are but also how much more there is to do. You’re right that 25% of London Underground being step-free isn’t nearly enough. It’s great that they’re working to improve and I understand this is gradual but more people need to be aware of the obstacles those with disability face.
Glad this is eye opening!