James Moore: My wheelchair Tube marathon
Getting to the Games by public transport is simple, right? Not if you are disabled and on your own
The journey from hell? Not quite but, as a wheelchair user, getting from The Independent's offices in west London to the Olympic Park certainly fits into the "Oh God this is a nightmare" category. For the able bodied it's a breeze: one stop on the Circle Line from High Street Kensington and you're at Notting Hill. It's less than half an hour on the Central Line to the Games from there. Who said London's transport system was creaking?
Trouble is, as with so many stations in central London, changing between lines at Notting Hill requires negotiating a series of stairs and escalators and sharp-elbowed commuters who attempt to impersonate downhill ski-iers as they go haring down them. I might as well try climbing the Eiger. The risk would be about the same.
The alternative route is long, slow, and difficult. For a start I've got to get on to the platform at High Street Ken – and there is no disabled help point. If there isn't a member of staff in evidence I have to either wait or shout "help" very loudly (which is kind of embarrassing).
That member of staff has to be comfortable with transferring a wheelchair down to platform level and then playing catcher to ensure I don't fall – I've twice nearly come to grief.
After that, there's a long and rickety journey on the Circle Line to look forward to, before negotiating the gap at Tower Hill and waiting for a District Line train. That gets me to Mile End, where you can (fortunately) cross the platform to reach the Central Line.
Hopefully a member of staff or a friendly passenger (one or two do exist) will assist with negotiating the step you need to climb to get on the train there. Those steps and gaps might appear to be some of London's charming little eccentricities (they don't seem to exist elsewhere). They are a nightmare if your mobility is constrained.
That little lot takes well over an hour, and after it I'm exhausted.
There've been one or two controversies surrounding the Games. The fact that disabled spectators have to call a premium rate line to secure tickets has rightly caused a stir. The sponsorship by Atos, the French company at the centre of the scandalous way some seriously disabled people have been treated under the Govenrment's callous benefit assessments is another black mark. If enough disabled spectators fall foul of the transport network, it could eclipse both. Sadly, my experience is far from unusual.
Lianne Etkind, campaigns and outreach co-ordinator for Transport for All, confirms this: "Disabled and older passengers feel let down by the Mayor and Transport for London (TfL). There has certainly been progress – there are more step-free stations than ever before and audio-visual information is now installed on every bus, and is used increasingly on trains too. But large swathes of the transport system remain out of bounds to us.
"In 2006, a year after London won the Olympics, the Mayor promised that by 2013 a third of the Tube would be step-free. This target has been cut and cut again. At present, 66 stations of 270 – less than a quarter – are step-free to platform. And that's when the lifts are working. Only a small minority of these [designated by a blue, rather than white, wheelchair symbol] are step-free on to the train as well.
"In some parts of London, less than half of bus stops are fully accessible. The reality is that, for disabled Londoners, journeys are likely to be longer, more difficult and sometimes just not possible."
She's right. The thing is, it can be done properly. And when it is, it's brilliant. If I'm travelling to the Games from home in Essex, I can use Woodford station (after a short cab ride) which is completely step-free. Its staff are an example to the rest of the network, too – with me, they have always gone out of their way to be helpful. For the duration of the Paralympics they even have ramps at the station.
Unfortunately those ramps are only temporary. A spokesman for TfL says the organisation would "like to" deploy them on a permanent basis. Of course, there is a but. "We need to make sure that we get the staffing right so that we can consistently have the ramps and people can be assured that when they arrive at a station there is a ramp available," he says, arguing that TfL has worked hard to improve accessibility and that this comes at a high cost on a network nearly 150 years old.
The problem is, as disability campaigners point out, staff on stations are becoming an endangered species. Their numbers are being cut. The people who organise public transport seem to think that a CCTV camera or a disabled help point (when stations have them) will do the trick. They won't. They are no substitute for having someone who's willing to come up to you and say, "Can I help?".
During the Games some 3,500 people, it is true, have been pulled out of back office jobs to man the stations and do just that. But even if they all replicate the performance of staff at Woodford, when it's over they'll be back to pushing paper. And those of us that struggle to use the capital's transport will be struggling again.
The word "legacy" has been used a lot in connection with both the Paralympics and the Olympics. That would mean something if even some of the improvements made during the Parlaympics become permanent.
Because being disabled in Britain isn't much fun right now. As Tracey Lazard, chief executive of Inclusion London, says, there is a rising tide of attacks on disabled people. Many are scared to leave their homes. And for those that aren't? "The cuts that will happen after the Games to benefits like disability living allowance will have a devastating effect. Its removal from people will have a knock on effect on freedom passes, blue badges, Motability Scheme cars. A lot of disabled people who are out and about and using our semi-accessible transport system now are going to find themselves confined to their homes."
Access all areas? Travellers' tales
Theresa Cornish, 67, retired, arthritis sufferer from Walthamstow
"I took the bus here to soak up the atmosphere. It only took 45 minutes but unfortunately it was full, there were no free seats and people didn't get up for me. Ever since Ken Livingstone was Mayor the number of buses has gone up, which is good. However there are a lot of rough drivers who jolt a lot. There need to be more escalators at Tube stations."
Alicia Reagan, 35, housewife from Cincinnati, Ohio
"Overall the assistants did a good job but the cars with the handicap symbols had no steps. Therefore we had to go well out of the way of our intended route. I couldn't have made it here today without my husband. In America everywhere is much more accessible."
Hilda May Binns 67, retired Paralympian from Toronto
"We are staying in Weybridge. We had a problem at the station – the train needed a ramp, but people were very willing to help. We took the Jubilee line and the lifts were excellent. It took us one hour 20 minutes to get here and it couldn't have been quicker if we had driven. London Underground is very similar to the subway in Toronto except you can get to more places here."
Justin Frishberg, 40, wheelchair rugby player from Stanmore, London
"I travelled from Stanmore on the Jubilee line which was fine. It's direct and that's the only reason I took the Tube. Normally I would drive. I enjoy meeting people on the Tube; today for example I met an Austrian table-tennis player. I hope this spirit will continue."
Carole Darnell, 48, volunteer British shooting team coach from Norfolk
"I took the DLR. It was great; we didn't encounter too many problems. We were even put to the front of queues and given priority over pushchairs, which annoyed some mums!"
Patricia Kelly, mother of Charlie, eight, with cerebral palsy, from Kidbrooke, London
"The access was really good and the lifts were fine. We wouldn't use the Tube normally unless we were taking Charlie to hospital."
Jurgen Boom, 39, military policeman from Amsterdam
"I travelled from Waterloo on the Jubilee line. It didn't take long, it was easily accessible and we didn't have to change trains. I have no complaints … yet!"
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