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Building Customer Confidence

Building Customer Confidence

Kirsten Newman talks to train operating companies about getting it right for disabled users

Transport providers have invested millions of pounds in increasing accessibility, yet a major survey conducted by the Disability Rights Commission has revealed widespread lack of confidence in transport systems amongst disabled users. Kirsten Newman explores the findings and talks to train operating companies about getting it right for disabled users.

The survey, conducted over November and December 2006, of seven thousand British people found that over 40% of disabled people are not confident taking an unplanned journey on an unfamiliar route – twice the figure for non-disabled travellers. In addition, 26% of disabled people said they were not confident travelling alone on buses and trains compared with 6% of non-disabled people who said they lacked confidence.

The DRC-initiated poll that disabled people are four times more likely to lack confidence using buses and trains than non-disabled people, and that difficulties extended not just to people with a physical impairment, but also stated that the percentage of people with a mental health problem who lacked confidence travelling was higher than those with a physical impairment.

The DRC has launched a campaign to encourage more disabled people and those with long term health conditions to use public transport and exercise their new rights to fair treatment on buses, trains, trams and taxis. The campaign follows changes to the Disability Discrimination Act introduced last month.

Bus and train companies in Britain have invested a minimum of £600 million to make vehicles accessible, such as introducing low floor buses and audio and visual announcements on trains. These improvements have been required on all new buses and trains since 2000. Every bus and train needs to be accessible by 2017 and 2020 respectively.

Sir Bert Massie, Chairman of the DRC said: “Millions have been invested in making public transport more user-friendly. But in some parts of the country, lack of confidence is the major barrier for disabled people using buses and trains. We need to see a return on this investment through increased transport use.

“The fact that people with mental health problems have the lowest levels of confidence using public transport shows that the problem isn’t just about physical access but about service issues that are well within reach of transport providers to put right.
“We know that bus and train companies have invested in training their staff to provide assistance to disabled people. They need to continue this work by making increasing confidence their top priority.

Transport has proved a vital issue for people with disabilities, with 50 per cent listed it as their main concern, and one that hinders employment prospects. Currently nearly 50% of buses are accessible and over one third of trains are user-friendly.
Train Operating Companies (TOCs) expressed disappointment at the findings in light of the considerable work that has taken place to improve accessibility.

Chris Hagyard, of Virgin Trains, said the TOC was concerned at the statistics, but disappointed that there is no mention in the report of the nationally supported and available Assisted Passenger Reservation Service (APRS). This service is available for people with all kinds of disability including mental impairments, enabling them to pre-book assistance anywhere on the network. Aside from providing reassurance to disabled customers, it also helps train operators to be ready to assist at stations or onboard.

‘We recognise that when booked assistance fails to materialise this often causes significant difficulty to our customers. We are keen to work closely with other train companies through ATOC to explore ways in which the national APRS system can be made to work as effectively as possible.

We will also continue to look for further accessibility improvements we can make at stations within our minor works program, and also to take advantage of the Railways for All fund where appropriate.‘

The needs of disabled people were taken into account in the design of the trains, which fully comply with the Rail Vehicle Accessibility Regulations, he said.

Major improvements in accessibility were incorporated within the Pendolino and Voyager trains, introduced between 2002 and 2004. A fleet of 78 Voyager and SuperVoyager trains used on the CrossCountry routes also operates some West Coast services to North Wales. The West Coast fleet consists of 53 Pendolinos.

Each of our trains provides accommodation for customers whose mobility is impaired, including a wheelchair space located within a passenger saloon adjacent to an entrance door and near to an accessible toilet and the on-board customer service staff. On these trains at least two wheelchair spaces are provided.

At the stations Virgin manages, work has taken placec closely with Network Rail to introduce improvements such as wheelchair accessible toilets, customer operated lifts and improved electronic information systems.

Mr Hagyard said Virgin focuses much attention at the collective work carried out by ATOC to seek to improve rail travel across the network.

‘We are also keen to engage with individual disabled travellers and representative groups, to listen closely to their views, and to continually improve our understanding of their needs.

’We also realise the importance of disability training of our front line staff and ensuring they behave in an empathetic way towards people whatever their individual need. We currently have robust training programs in place for this.‘

Helen Hodgkinson, of Merseyrail, said the train operating company is committed to helping customers with disabilities or restricted mobility in making their journeys, whilst also recognising that there are different types of disability including speech and learning difficulties.

Merseyrail has a Disabled Peoples Protection Policy (DPPP) that sets out the services that disabled customers can expect when travelling with Merseyrail - www.merseyrail.org/documents/DisabledPeoplesProtectionPolicy.pdf.

A significant number of improvements have been made to the Merseyrail network, including a major refit of the Merseyrail trains. All 59 trains were refurbished by August 2005 with a wide central aisle to make room for passengers in wheelchairs, as well as a Customer Information System (CIS) with electronic screens and voice announcements. Other improvements have included the fully accessible £32 million Liverpool South Parkway Interchange which opened in June 2006, and improved car parking and additional blue badge spaces at a number of stations including Maghull and Birkdale.

In line with other Train Operators and as mentioned above, Merseyrail recommends that arrangements are made in advance whenever possible to ensure that we are able to meet a disabled persons needs. Merseyrail requests no more than 1-hour notice in advance to ensure that staff are aware of the passengers journey details. Because stations are staffed from first train in the morning to the last train at night, if a disabled person arrives at a station without prior notification.

Merseyrail receives a large number of letters of commendation for the service that is offered and provided by front line staff.

‘We actively engage with disabled customers. A good example is our recent project to refurbish the toilets at Liverpool Central station to include fully accessible facilities. This project was “kick started” by Mr L Cole who complained about the lack of such facilities for disabled passengers. We asked him to join our project team and when the refurbishment was completed, he officially opened the new toilets in June 2006,’ she said.