Focusing on just England and for the period covering 2016/17, the Department for Transport found that the population held 9.8 million older and disabled concessionary travel passes too. Is enough being done to make the nation's means of public transport accessible for disabled people and the elderly though, asks Lee Dover from stairlift manufacturer Acorn Stairlifts.

Public transport is still proving very popular as a means of getting from A to B across Britain. According to the Department for Transport's Transport Statistics, Great Britain 2018: Moving Britain Ahead report, there were 4.85 billion local bus passenger journeys completed throughout Great Britain during 2017/18 and 1.71 billion National Rail passenger journeys which took place. There were also 270 million passenger journeys recorded on light rail and tram systems during the same period, which is a record level since comparable records commenced.

Problems with accessibility on public transport highlighted

UK-based poet and artist Jamie Hale has expressed his disappointment about how he feels Britain's transport system doesn't cater enough for disabled people in an opinion piece for The Guardian, going as far as to state that London alone 'has one of the best public transport systems in the world, yet only about a quarter of underground stations are fully accessible for me'

Jamie Hale, who is also an activist with groups like Not Dead Yet UK and Disabled People Against Cuts, was keen to point out some of the positives linked to the capital's public transport system. He acknowledged that buses in the city are often wheelchair-accessible and the pavements passable, for instance, while a system entitled Turn Up & Go is designed to allow passengers who are disabled to travel spontaneously.

However, he goes on to write that London's rail network puts reliance on staff-assisted travel for many of its passengers who are disabled. Putting this into a real-life situation, Jamie commented that this means he must wait for a member of staff to set up a ramp and then assist him with boarding the train — many times of which he ends up travelling within the vestibule of the transportation system.

Hale added: '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 am 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'

Jamie has provided some potential solutions for making both London's and the wider UK's transport system more accessible though, including:

  1. Ensuring all trains have proper spaces for wheelchair users.
  2. Improving how those requiring assistance to alight from public transport can alert staff members on a platform when the necessary help hasn't arrived. 
  3. Increasing the number of dedicated assistance staff members available for those using public transport.
  4. Introducing automated ramps which extend from trains to platform level.
  5. Making it free for carers and assistants to use public transport.

It isn't only Jamie Hale who has felt aggrieved where this issue is concerned. Within its Independent. Confident. Connected report, disability equality charity Scope found that 40% of disabled people often experience difficulties or issues when travelling via train across the UK. One in four also stated that negative attitudes from fellow passengers has led to them restricting their use of public transport.

Scope's head of policy and public affairs, James Taylor, stated: 'From airports to buses, we've heard too many horror stories of disabled people let down by poor infrastructure, bad service, or being treated as an afterthought. This urgently needs to change.

'A genuinely inclusive transport network would allow disabled people to be part of their community, work, and see family and friends. Progress towards fair and inclusive transport has been slow, and disabled people want to see change happening a lot faster'

Legal rights to accessible transport

The legality surrounding the provision of accessible transport is covered through the 2010 Equality Act, introduced as a replacement for all prior equality legislation, such as the Disability Discrimination Act. The premise of the act is to ensure that transport implements adjustments to provide a service for disabled people which is of the same standard to that of non-disabled people. Assistance measures should be put in place by those affected, to ensure that accessibility is met for disabled customers.

The regulations mean that providers must do the following:

  1. Not charge disabled people extra or refuse to travel to someone based on their ability
  2. Refuse a disabled person from travel under genuine safety reasons
  3. Must guarantee accommodation for disabled people where prior notice is given and provide extra assistance if no notice is made.
  4. Provide basic assistance in the terminal, when loading/unloading luggage or boarding/alighting from the transport
  5. Display information in accessible formats
  6. Provide training for all staff members in disability awareness and handling associated equipment
  7. Provide compensation for lost or damaged equipment
  8. Must allow registered assistance dogs to travel on transport including buses and coaches

Other methods of transport have slightly varying rules, for travel by sea and waterways:

  1. Assistance dogs are permitted but must follow national rules
  2. A temporary requirement should be provided if the equipment is lost or damaged
  3. Standards of assistance should be filed by large establishments

The Equality Act also set out provisions for guidelines regarding public transport vehicles, such as trains, buses, coaches and taxis, and they are to be outlined by the government. 

The standard allowance for travel is based on a 'reference wheelchair, which measurements are a length of 1200mm, including extra long footplates with a total width of 700mm. The sitting height from ground to top of the head shouldn't exceed 1350mm and the height of the footrest will be no more than 150mm.

To account for all wheelchair sizes, the 'reference wheelchair' is bigger than most models, to guarantee that the user will have enough room. Some models are bigger, however, and they may be unable to travel. Theoretically, if your wheelchair fits these requirements then you should be allowed to travel with it. If you are concerned about the size guidelines, you should contact your travel operator ahead of time for assurance, as many can provide further assistance.

A further requirement for mobility scooters is that they are able to be folded down in order to travel, but smaller models are permitted on some buses and trains.

Further measures on increasing accessibility in transport

Planning your journey is essential, and there are various organisations which provide free advice. For blind or partially sighted customers, Describe Online is an example as it provides text descriptions of the layout of public spaces. Many transport facilities also rely on announcements to communicate with those who have limited sight, and the React AV system provides information on public spaces in an audio format.

Trams are still a popular method of transport in some major UK cities, and they often have a concession or discounted fares for older and disabled passengers. All services now have wheelchair accessible platforms and level access is provided in all areas to avoid the use of ramps. Most mobility scooters and wheelchairs are allowed to travel on trams, but some do so on a permit basis which the user must apply for and display to travel.

The need to increase accessibility is also being recognized in the capital. Transport For London is at the forefront of making their services inclusive to all abilities, including those with hidden disabilities. The the introduction of the 'Travel Support Card' enables users with any form of disability to seek assistance from staff if necessary, and the user can note down any important details to give staff a better idea of the support which they could provide.

Accessibility is also growing in local communities across the UK, with initiatives such as door-to-door services whereby people can rely on transport coming directly to their home. If you are unable to use public transport with your wheelchair, you could benefit from one of these services, often known as 'dial a ride', and your wheelchair can travel with you. These services are usually provided by local councils or authorities, and those who wish to use the service should consult the relevant authorities or the community pages in the phone book.

The transport sector is certainly making advances when it comes to accessibility, ensuring that all customers feel safe and secure regardless of their ability. It is becoming more than just a matter of getting from a to b, as the inclusive nature of the facilities available becomes an important factor for those who want to use their services.

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