Here’s what it’s like using London transport in a wheelchair and without working hands

The author on the tube. Image: Pete Apps.

One night in December 2016, I left my flat in Southwark. For the first time since breaking my neck a decade earlier, I wanted to take the underground by myself. I intended to get myself and wheelchair to Stratford, go to the cinema alone – again, for the first time since the injury – and get back home without support.

It worked almost without a hitch. I got another passenger to press the lift buttons to get me into Southwark station from the street, and a staff member to help me to the platform. Having once been paralased from the shoulders down, my left arm is now somewhat functional – although the hand is not. Most stations have large enough buttons for me to press, but Southwark, for some reason, remains almost the sole exception.

Nonetheless – I got to Stratford on my own, watched my film, made it back to SE1. Then I found a pub, where some students got me drunk, accidentally broke my wheelchair, and kindly phoned my live in carers to retrieve me from a dancefloor.

Since then, I have been among the most disabled users to ride the London transport system alone. It’s impossible to understate what such greater independence really means. After a decade of largely only being able to go out accompanied by PAs or other people, I now have access to London much more like a normal human being. It’s been beyond life-changing.

It makes me feel very lucky – and think that I should do more to protect the rights and opportunities and access. With that in mind, here’s what I think London – and Britain – gets right and wrong when it comes to disability and transport. 

Taxis, cars and the Motability scheme

Leased with mixture of my own money and benefits, my Motability wheelchair-accessible vehicle (WAV) is a lifeline – the only way I can get to most activities out of London, from visiting family to hospital appointments and service in the Army Reserve.

Because my spinal cord was broken so high, I don’t have enough movement to be able to drive myself – although for slightly less disabled people, remarkable adjustments are available. Motability provides more than 600,000 cars, mobility vehicles and scooters – although the financial structures it uses do so, an opaque blend of a charity and company owned by Britain’s biggest banks, were criticised heavily last year by the National Audit Office.

Clearly Motability’s activities – which have seen multimillion bonuses to directors, plus the holding of even larger sums as company reserves – could use some broader scrutiny. The vehicle, though, remains invaluable – particularly as the insurance that comes with it allows any qualified driver, vital given my ever-changing group of PAs.

Within London, however, its use has always been a challenge – not least because of the difficulties of parking. Before I was this independent, I needed someone with me, and it was often impossible to use the vehicle without taking two people – one to drive and park and the other to go with me.

The alternative was using taxis. As well as being expensive, however, black cabs are insufficiently high to take my bulky electric wheelchair. So I was dependent on a smaller manual chair, with someone else to push. It’s how I got through years of my newly paralysed journalistic career, but I’m very glad I have other options now.


Buses

Aside from very occasional use with PAs, I only really began to brave the bus network last year. Before that, I was put off by the challenges of memorising routes, worries over how I would let the driver know I wanted a particular stop, and nightmare tales from other wheelchair users.

On the latter front, my experience suggests the introduction of a recorded announcement every time a wheelchair boards instructing other passengers – including those with buggies – to vacate the disabled space has reduced abuse from other passengers. I’m very aware, however, that others have had unpleasant that still deter them from using public transport.

Buses often remain the slowest option – but they are almost always the most reliable for a wheelchair user. That said, there’s only one space per bus – so if someone else is using it, you’re waiting for the next one. It also means that if you have a friend or partner also in a wheelchair, you must take successive buses. Unless you live in Reading, the only place I’ve heard of that has a double space per vehicle.

London Underground

The backbone of London’s transport is the tube. The first line, between Paddington and Farringdon, opened in 1863, followed by South Kensington to Westminster five years later. Neither journey is yet particularly accessible – Paddington offers lift access to lines in only one direction, and South Kensington will not get such facilities at all until the early 2020s.

When I was first injured in 2006, only the new stretch of the Jubilee line – from Westminster to Stratford – was really accessible. Olympic related rebuilds improved that, creating functional lift-equipped transfer hubs at Kings Cross, Green Park and London Bridge. Unfortunately, then mayor Boris Johnson cancelled multiple such adaptions elsewhere on 2010, throwing away £64m already invested.

Only lately have improvements got back on track, first through new trains on the District line which allow step free access, albeit with a very varied gap between the train and the platform. The Victoria Line has also dramatically improved, adding platform humps that allow flat access at most stations. The provision of actual lifts to the surface remains patchy. On the parts I use, Brixton, Vauxhall, Victoria, Green Park, Kings Cross all have them; Oxford Circus, Warren Street and Euston do not.

These improvements are often very new – Vauxhall only became accessible in 2017, the year before I moved here. But alongside adaptions on other lines, they mean a meaningfully accessible underground transport network exists in London in a way it did not even five years ago.

London now compares favourably to many other global cities – check out this map of Paris, in which almost the entire central network disappears when you ask it to highlight wheelchair access. Irritatingly, though, TfL treats the introduction of accessibility and new stations like a national secret – its map of the accessible underground is both misleading and invariably out of date.

A privately produced map now does a better job. It’s the creation of scientist and transport campaigner Tomas Rey-Hastie following travels with his wheelchair user husband. It shows the dramatic improvement of recent years – although I suspect it will be another decade or two before the system really works.

One quick point on lift buttons – as well as sometimes being of varying size, it is striking that stations in rich areas often have larger lifts or buttons on both sides. Those in poorer areas, such as Brixton, do not – a real pain if, like me, you only have one working arm. On entering a lift, it’s vital I check which side the button is before the doors close – otherwise I’m stuck until someone else arrives. Luckily, it turns out staff really do check them every hour.

Docklands Light Railway, Trams, and so forth

One of the things Tomas’s map really showcases is how better served those parts of London are that have either the DLR or southern London tram network. The latter is a recent addition, while the former really broke new ground in terms of access when it was built in the 1980s.

With my very limited hand movement, it’s a major frustration that the DLR invariably has old-style smaller lift buttons that I cannot press – particularly as its stations are unstaffed.

It’s worth pointing out, of course, that other disabilities have very different needs. A survey by the charity Guide Dogs last month, for example, showed that a third of visually impaired transport users said they had been left on a platform by a train, with almost half saying increasingly overstretched staff lacked the skills to help them. They must find the sometimes deserted DLR stations a particular challenge.

Trains

What Tomas’s map also shows is the challenges of those parts of London dependent on the rail network. Many stations any do not have any access at all. Even those that don’t often require the booking of wheelchair assistance and a ramp, which often fails to actually turn up. 

What that means for a wheelchair user is predictable and distressing – arriving at one’s destination to find oneself trapped on the train, dependent either on passers-by to help, or forced to stay on the train to its destination. In August this year, former Paralympic gold medalist Sophie Christiansen documented what that meant. The operator, South Western Railway, apologised and said it would investigate. The same thing happened again the following week.

There are ways around such problems – operator Greater Anglia has just introduced trains that offer flat access boarding on some rural routes, while Cardiff and Liverpool now offer similar across their suburban networks.

As on the London Underground, introducing platform humps to avoid the need for a ramp along a small section of the platform offers one solution – something now on offer on the Heathrow Express and central London portion of the Thameslink service. But they cannot be used on lines that also take freight – one reason why the outer portions of Crossrail will still need ramps when that line is finally open.

That new trains continue to enter service with such limited access is a huge frustration – and has helped spark what looks to be a major campaign amongst disabled users for better representation across the planning and procurement process. That has to be the right way forward – and will benefit not just the disabled community, but others such as those with pushchairs.

For myself, I’m just grateful to have regained the chance to access transport independently. I never thought I would.

Peter Apps is the executive director of the Project for Study of the 21st Century, and global affairs commentator for Reuters. He tweets @Pete_Apps.

 
 
 
 

To build its emerging “megaregions”, the USA should turn to trains

Under construction: high speed rail in California. Image: Getty.

An extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, out now from Island Press.

A regional transportation system does not become balanced until all its parts are operating effectively. Highways, arterial streets, and local streets are essential, and every megaregion has them, although there is often a big backlog of needed repairs, especially for bridges. Airports for long-distance travel are also recognized as essential, and there are major airports in all the evolving megaregions. Both highways and airports are overloaded at peak periods in the megaregions because of gaps in the rest of the transportation system. Predictions for 2040, when the megaregions will be far more developed than they are today, show that there will be much worse traffic congestion and more airport delays.

What is needed to create a better balance? Passenger rail service that is fast enough to be competitive with driving and with some short airplane trips, commuter rail to major employment centers to take some travelers off highways, and improved local transit systems, especially those that make use of exclusive transit rights-of-way, again to reduce the number of cars on highways and arterial roads. Bicycle paths, sidewalks, and pedestrian paths are also important for reducing car trips in neighborhoods and business centers.

Implementing “fast enough” passenger rail

Long-distance Amtrak trains and commuter rail on conventional, unelectrified tracks are powered by diesel locomotives that can attain a maximum permitted speed of 79 miles per hour, which works out to average operating speeds of 30 to 50 miles per hour. At these speeds, trains are not competitive with driving or even short airline flights.

Trains that can attain 110 miles per hour and can operate at average speeds of 70 miles per hour are fast enough to help balance transportation in megaregions. A trip that takes two to three hours by rail can be competitive with a one-hour flight because of the need to allow an hour and a half or more to get to the boarding area through security, plus the time needed to pick up checked baggage. A two-to-three-hour train trip can be competitive with driving when the distance between destinations is more than two hundred miles – particularly for business travelers who want to sit and work on the train. Of course, the trains also have to be frequent enough, and the traveler’s destination needs to be easily reachable from a train station.

An important factor in reaching higher railway speeds is the recent federal law requiring all trains to have a positive train control safety system, where automated devices manage train separation to avoid collisions, as well as to prevent excessive speeds and deal with track repairs and other temporary situations. What are called high-speed trains in the United States, averaging 70 miles per hour, need gate controls at grade crossings, upgraded tracks, and trains with tilt technology – as on the Acela trains – to permit faster speeds around curves. The Virgin Trains in Florida have diesel-electric locomotives with an electrical generator on board that drives the train but is powered by a diesel engine. 

The faster the train needs to operate, the larger, and heavier, these diesel-electric locomotives have to be, setting an effective speed limit on this technology. The faster speeds possible on the portion of Amtrak’s Acela service north of New Haven, Connecticut, came after the entire line was electrified, as engines that get their power from lines along the track can be smaller and much lighter, and thus go faster. Catenary or third-rail electric trains, like Amtrak’s Acela, can attain speeds of 150 miles per hour, but only a few portions of the tracks now permit this, and average operating speeds are much lower.

Possible alternatives to fast enough trains

True electric high-speed rail can attain maximum operating speeds of 150 to 220 miles per hour, with average operating speeds from 120 to 200 miles per hour. These trains need their own grade-separated track structure, which means new alignments, which are expensive to build. In some places the property-acquisition problem may make a new alignment impossible, unless tunnels are used. True high speeds may be attained by the proposed Texas Central train from Dallas to Houston, and on some portions of the California High-Speed Rail line, should it ever be completed. All of the California line is to be electrified, but some sections will be conventional tracks so that average operating speeds will be lower.


Maglev technology is sometimes mentioned as the ultimate solution to attaining high-speed rail travel. A maglev train travels just above a guideway using magnetic levitation and is propelled by electromagnetic energy. There is an operating maglev train connecting the center of Shanghai to its Pudong International Airport. It can reach a top speed of 267 miles per hour, although its average speed is much lower, as the distance is short and most of the trip is spent getting up to speed or decelerating. The Chinese government has not, so far, used this technology in any other application while building a national system of long-distance, high-speed electric trains. However, there has been a recent announcement of a proposed Chinese maglev train that can attain speeds of 375 miles per hour.

The Hyperloop is a proposed technology that would, in theory, permit passenger trains to travel through large tubes from which all air has been evacuated, and would be even faster than today’s highest-speed trains. Elon Musk has formed a company to develop this virtually frictionless mode of travel, which would have speeds to make it competitive with medium- and even long-distance airplane travel. However, the Hyperloop technology is not yet ready to be applied to real travel situations, and the infrastructure to support it, whether an elevated system or a tunnel, will have all the problems of building conventional high-speed rail on separate guideways, and will also be even more expensive, as a tube has to be constructed as well as the train.

Megaregions need fast enough trains now

Even if new technology someday creates long-distance passenger trains with travel times competitive with airplanes, passenger traffic will still benefit from upgrading rail service to fast-enough trains for many of the trips within a megaregion, now and in the future. States already have the responsibility of financing passenger trains in megaregion rail corridors. Section 209 of the federal Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 requires states to pay 85 percent of operating costs for all Amtrak routes of less than 750 miles (the legislation exempts the Northeast Corridor) as well as capital maintenance costs of the Amtrak equipment they use, plus support costs for such programs as safety and marketing. 

California’s Caltrans and Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority, Connecticut, Indiana, Illinois, Maine’s Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin all have agreements with Amtrak to operate their state corridor services. Amtrak has agreements with the freight railroads that own the tracks, and by law, its operations have priority over freight trains.

At present it appears that upgrading these corridor services to fast-enough trains will also be primarily the responsibility of the states, although they may be able to receive federal grants and loans. The track improvements being financed by the State of Michigan are an example of the way a state can take control over rail service. These tracks will eventually be part of 110-mile-per-hour service between Chicago and Detroit, with commitments from not just Michigan but also Illinois and Indiana. Fast-enough service between Chicago and Detroit could become a major organizer in an evolving megaregion, with stops at key cities along the way, including Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, and Ann Arbor. 

Cooperation among states for faster train service requires formal agreements, in this case, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Compact. The participants are Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, and Wisconsin. There is also an advocacy organization to support the objectives of the compact, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission.

States could, in future, reach operating agreements with a private company such as Virgin Trains USA, but the private company would have to negotiate its own agreement with the freight railroads, and also negotiate its own dispatching priorities. Virgin Trains says in its prospectus that it can finance track improvements itself. If the Virgin Trains service in Florida proves to be profitable, it could lead to other private investments in fast-enough trains.

Jonathan Barnett is an emeritus Professor of Practice in City and Regional Planning, and former director of the Urban Design Program, at the University of Pennsylvania. 

This is an extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, published now by Island Press. You can find out more here.