Latest Rail News

04.07.14

Freedom to frustration and back again

Guest blog by Jeff Harvey from campaigning charity Transport for All and the Brent Transport Action Group.

I am a power wheelchair user, so even a small step is not negotiable for me and there are no truly step-free Underground stations near where I live in Kilburn. Last spring, in what I thought was a momentous evening, I was told that I could use a Manual Boarding Ramp to access trains at Kilburn station. It felt like a whole section of London opened up to me as I could suddenly access parts of the Underground network which were truly step-free (admittedly a small percentage, but still, a lot of places, and a slowly growing list). It made me surprisingly happy to have just a small slice of the freedom to travel that most people take for granted.

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After a few trips using the Manual Boarding Ramps, I was told that their use was actually unapproved by management and it was local staff who had taken the initiative to help passengers travel. The ramps were withdrawn from use. The feeling of freedom turned to frustration at having this section of the Underground taken away from my options to travel.

I started working with the Brent Transport Action Group and Transport for All (TfA) to try to get the ramps back in service at Kilburn station. I learned that other wheelchair users had used the ramps and were equally disappointed that they were no longer in use. Communication with London Underground and TfL as to why the ramps were withdrawn was at first difficult. Eventually, it was made clear that the MBRs were not approved for use for trains which were lower than the platform because the ramps would be inside the train and not fixed to the platform and this configuration was untested and not known to be safe. This decision was not something they could override on their own because it was actually policy of Department for Transport.

We met several times with LU and TfL and worked on the issue with London Assembly member Navin Shah. Assembly member Shah asked questions of the Mayor about the issue. LU said they wanted to find a solution and had set up a working group to look at the issue and were considering new ramp designs. TfA kept pressing for information and were briefed on the possible ramp designs and members were invited to help test the new designs when prototypes were ready.

I participated in an evening of testing on a cold day last February, going back and forth between Kingsbury and Wembley Park where the new ramp prototype was used for the step down into the train. The testing went very smoothly.

I learned that the ramps might be ready for use in May but I was disappointed to learn that the lift at Kilburn was to be taken out of service from May until late June, just when the ramps might have been ready. After waiting so long, this was another disappointment and by then I was wondering if I would ever get to use Kilburn station again.

Finally on 17 June, the lift at Kilburn was back in service, and the ramps were in place and staff had been trained to use them. After more than a year, I was wondering if I should dare to feel that sense of freedom to travel again. Two days later, I was in London Bridge, and asked a staff member if he could arrange the ramp at Kilburn station. He called in a request and was told that Kilburn didn’t have ramps and they’d locate the closest accessible station. I thought back through my initial excitement last year, the disappointment, the emails, the meetings, the testing, the waiting and wished I could tell the member of staff the whole story, but I just said: “I’m quite sure they have ramps now, could you check with Kilburn station directly?”

And they put through a call directly to Kilburn station and soon the doors of a Jubilee line train were closing behind me and the staff member was telling Kilburn the train number and that I was on car 6.

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20 minutes later I was comfortably and safely rolling over the new bridge design ramp onto the platform of Kilburn station, descending from the platform in the freshly refurbished lift and just minutes away from home. Soon I was relaxing at home, thinking about how, without this new ramp, I would have been less than half way home on a bus journey that can take two or three buses and easily an hour and a half, if traffic isn’t too bad.

Since I was able to take the Underground, I still had enough energy to go out again to a social event near Southbank that evening, and used Kilburn station again for a quick trip home, instead of an hour or more on the bus. The ability to use the Underground has already made a difference in my life, allowing me to travel without being exhausted. It would have been impossible for me to go out twice in one day if it meant five hours of travel on the bus.

The new bridging ramps are now in use at Kilburn, Wembley Park and Stanmore. I hope they can be put to use in more stations in the near future.

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