Accessibility assessed

News stories are free to read. Click here for full access to all the features, articles and archive from only £8.99.
Side-mounted lifts can be daunting for wheelchair users, said Doug, but allow the user to travel among other passengers. JONATHAN WELCH

Jonathan Welch speaks to accessibility campaigner Doug Paulley about what makes an accessible journey

Accessibility is a huge topic, and means different things to different people. It’s maybe even something that few people give much thought to, even those who benefit from it, especially now that low-floor buses are the norm for local services. Most people probably don’t even notice the accessibility features built into a modern bus, even less so a coach unless the wheelchair lift is deployed, and yet those same features make journeys easier for thousands of travellers per day. Public transport is probably more accessible now than ever before – especially coaches and buses, where there is always guaranteed to be a driver close at hand to supervise boarding and alighting and offer assistance when needed. But that’s not to say things are always perfect.

Are you enjoying this feature? Why not subscribe to continue reading?

Subscribe for just £10 a month with our annual print and digital offer, Or login if you are already a subscriber

By subscribing you will benefit from:

  • Operator & Supplier Profiles
  • Face-to-Face Interviews
  • Lastest News
  • Test Drives and Reviews
  • Legal Updates
  • Route Focus
  • Industry Insider Opinions
  • Passenger Perspective
  • Vehicle Launches
  • and much more!

Someone whose name will be familiar to many in the coach and bus industry is accessibility campaigner Doug Paulley, who has earned somewhat of a reputation in the sector for – depending on your perspective – highlighting or exposing problems of accessibility, often via his YouTube channel where he posts travelogues of journeys, successful or otherwise, by public transport.

Possibly his most well-known was a case involving FirstGroup in 2012, after being unable to board a bus due to other passengers being unwilling to vacate the wheelchair space in a pushchair-versus-wheelchair scenario which most service bus drivers will have experienced. Whilst the judgement in the case, which was ultimately ruled upon by the Supreme Court, rightly required operators to be more robust in their handling of such situations in favour of the wheelchair user, it created much resentment behind the wheel from drivers who were being instructed to carry this out (with potentially serious consequences if not) but with no legal power to do so and the suggestion that they should use ‘peer-pressure’ to persuade people to give up the space.

More recently, perhaps predictably, Doug’s attempt to board a service operated by Flixbus for which somewhat inexplicably, despite clearly falling under PSVAR regulations, neither Flixbus nor its contractor provided a PSVAR-specification vehicle, also attracted significant attention – some might say justifiably so, considering that in this case it was a situation which was fully within the control of the operators.

With the current heightened awareness of PSVAR, I took the opportunity to speak to Doug not about specific cases, but about what makes an accessible journey. Doug started off by giving some background to his experiences. “The media boiled the FirstGroup case down to a wheelchair versus pushchair argument, but that’s not what we set out to achieve. It’s about a package of measures companies could do,” he explained, “and creating an environment where people might want to move from the space anyway when they can, rather than have to force them to.”
Doug explained that one area where he often encounters problems is rail replacement services: “The rail replacement staff are generally quite good, but some are better than others. I was recently on a rail replacement service where the vehicles were PSVAR-compatible but the destination screens weren’t in use,” he continued, suggesting that it’s somewhat pointless to have such expensive equipment fitted if operators are unwilling or unable to make full use of it. “I was on a service operated by Go North East recently too. They are great. Go North East operates National Express routes, and I am a ‘model’ for the National Express training videos, so the Go North East drivers recognised me.

“On another occasion I was at Harrogate railway station and the staff seemed adamant that none of the rail replacement services were accessible. They wouldn’t believe me that they were. It doesn’t create a good impression. I do get very nervous when I travel, I get the feeling I’ll be recognised by all the rail replacement drivers.”

World leader

Whilst there are problems, Doug wasn’t afraid to highlight the positives: “The UK is the world leader in accessibility. In countries like Germany, where Flixbus is based, you have to give much more notice if you want to travel in a wheelchair, often as much as seven days. In the UK, transport operators are not allowed to require any more notice than for anyone else. Germany is so far behind the UK in so many ways – such as dropped kerbs.

“I sometimes think I’m the only regular coach user in a wheelchair. So few wheelchair users travel by coach, and it seems that on the odd occasions others have tried, it hasn’t worked so they don’t travel. It’s a never ending circle, and because no one uses it, the equipment doesn’t get used and skills go rusty. It’s understandable, but if it wasn’t for my legal action I don’t think many people would have noticed.”

Wheelchair users have almost universal access to bus services, but coach services still leave something to be desired, says Doug. JONATHAN WELCH













“Buses becoming reliably accessible has been life-changing for me and many others. I often see them being used by wheelchair users, it’s made a difference in so many ways. It means I can be spontaneous, and there’s not a lot of hassle involved. Now we need to get to a point where it is the same for coaches, with no risk of comeback from either drivers or equipment failure. It’s still not easy. Non-disabled passengers can be confident that they will be able to get on, go where they need to go, and get off at the other end. Even on occasions when we can travel, it can feel very intimidating, with people watching as you are loaded into the coach on the lift. Even if everything works as it should it can hold the coach up, and it looks like it’s ‘my fault.’”

I asked Doug about the various types of coach and bus, and how much of a difference the vehicle design makes. “I don’t like the Levante 3,” he explained, “the lift isn’t very good, some of the lift-out parts feel like they shift slightly. The old PLS ones worked well, but the newer ones less so. I hate the ‘magic seat’ with removable base. It’s over-complex, over-engineered. There’s no wonder people don’t know how to use it. It takes up too much space in the wheelchair area. I thought he Levante 2 was better than the Levante 3 for wheelchair users.
“Lots of wheelchair areas are designed for traditional wheelchairs with space between the back wheels for the backrest. It’s alright on a bus, it’s usually fairly easy to get on, negotiate the poles and manoeuvre into the space.”

Given the difficulty with lifts, it’s of little surprise that manufacturers have experimented with alternative layouts, some more successful than others. Regular users of the megabus and Stagecoach Express networks will have experienced Plaxton’s Elitei interdeck. Whilst the design speeds up boarding, and removes the worry – for driver, operator and wheelchair user – of a lift, it does have other drawbacks, as Doug explained: “On the interdeck design, the wheelchair space is too close to the dashboard, and it can actually be quite difficult to board. You’re also stuck next to the driver, which can be awkward and uncomfortable, and especially if the the driver struggled to load you it can be excruciating. Some drivers can see wheelchair users as a problem. The view is great, but you can feel quite isolated as you can’t sit with anyone.”

I asked whether a design like that of the Wrightbus Commuter, where the wheelchair space is further back, might be an improvement from a wheelchair user’s perspective. “I can imagine that there might be a problem with people walking past and not noticing my foot plates,” Doug suggested. “That could be quite significant for someone with osteoporosis.”

The extension of PSVAR to cover tours has been mooted recently. JONATHAN WELCH













Another issue for wheelchair users, which is by and large also a coach versus bus issue, is that of travelling backwards. The focus is often on the allocation of the space – Doug’s opinion is that it should be solely for wheelchair users, to prevent conflict and abuse, whilst many others argue that it should be available for others as and when needed, as there is only a finite amount of space available inside a bus, coach or indeed train. But many wheelchair users, just like many able-bodied travellers, dislike travelling backwards, though as Doug agreed it is a safer option and generally much quicker. Nonetheless, he pointed out that whilst there are many methods of securing the wheelchair during the journey, some such as the powered arm design can be as problematic in practice as a lift, and for the same reasons: lack of driver familiarity and lack of use leading to them not working when required. “I think sometimes they are made too complicated. If they were simpler, there would be less to go wrong,” he commented.

One piece of good practice which Doug highlighted was the provision of screens linked to the forward-facing CCTV camera, which allows rear-facing wheelchair users to see where the bus is going and what is happening – something which could be easily dismissed and unnecessary but on a dark night with dirty windows could make the difference between someone missing their stop or not – and ultimately make the difference between them using the bus or not. He cited Lothian and Brighton & Hove as examples of operators with particularly good practice in installing features to make travel easier.

“I’ve done a lot of work with some of the big operators, including megabus, Citylink and National Express. They have a pride in what they do, and I have found them to be quite responsive. Chris Hardy at National Express is a good example, he’s been really good, and wants things to work right. They have recently produced new training videos for drivers, which I was asked to be a part of. National Express is doing random checks where they ask a driver to demonstrate how the wheelchair lift operates. Hopefully that will improve the service and the reliability of the ramps. Things have improved a lot over the last few years; they needed to.”


An example of good practice cited by Doug is displaying the view from forward-facing CCTV cameras for wheelchair users on buses. JONATHAN WELCH












Even when things go to plan, and when there is space for a driver to operate the wheelchair lift, Doug raised another issue which it seems could be given more consideration: the feeling of vulnerability whilst being hoisted into the air as well as whilst manoeuvring on board. “Some coaches have the seats on a raised pedestal with a step down into the aisle. I have to be very careful when I’m turning into the space not to topple over the edge. On some occasions drivers haven’t secured my chair properly, which could cause it to move and me to fall into the aisle. Drivers sometimes leave the door open while they stow the ramp away too, which means the wheelchair user is sitting next to a large drop to the kerb. That can be very daunting, especially to someone who isn’t used to travelling by coach.”

Despite the criticisms, Doug said he had some level of sympathy. “It’s always going to be a case of playing one thing off another. The manual ramps on megabus are more reliable, but you’re isolated at the front. Or you can be in the main body of the coach with everyone else, with your friends, but there’s the worry of whether the equipment is or is not in good order. I don’t really have a favourite. All the coach types have pluses and minuses.”


With the door open, wheelchair users can feel vulnerable. JONATHAN WELCH
















Theory and practice

“There’s a big difference between the theory and the practice of accessibility,” Doug continued. “National Express for example really started to become accessible in the mid-2000s but they didn’t really push it. On the monitoring side the DVSA was slow to pick it up too. They might have noticed on the ‘dirty hands’ side if a lift wasn’t working, but less so when a non-compliant vehicle was used on a service. They appointed a head of PSVAR enforcement, and he’s a really good guy. He says he intends to improve the monitoring of it now and his role will be to enforce the provision and look at driver familiarisation. I think the DVSA could have done much more for coaches.

“We’re still talking about compliance but its 21 years since the legislation was introduced. If there had been more of a push years ago, or if accessibility had been mandated for home-to-school services, then the coaches that are used on rail replacement now might have been accessible much sooner. School services are inextricably linked with rail replacement, it’s often the same coaches on one as the other, so even if the lifts weren’t needed on school work there would have been a much wider benefit to the industry.” Indeed, as more and more operators who might previously have stuck to schools and private hires have turned to work such as rail replacement to help balance the books during the pandemic, the benefits could have been even greater than expected.

Another topic which comes up often is the question of ‘why not just use an accessible taxi?’ Having driven rail replacement coaches myself, it’s a question I’ve heard often, and Doug’s explanation of the other side of the coin was interesting. “It sounds good. It sounds like an attractive option. But it often doesn’t work out that way. There are often issues around reliability and safety. They often don’t seem to know how to use the restraint properly, but it can be a problem just finding one. In some places, there aren’t many and they aren’t kept on standby, so the rail staff often end up having to call one from afar.”

The low floor coach is seen by some as a solution to a more accessible interurban network. JONATHAN WELCH












True equality

Despite his reputation, Doug made sure to clarify that he doesn’t believe wheelchair users should be given priority, but have the same journey opportunities as others: “All I want is the same miserable rail replacement experience as everybody else,” he said, half joking. “I want to be able to turn up, get on a coach and go. I know I can turn up at a bus stop and get on a bus, and we need to get to the point where that is true for coaches now too,” he concluded.