This year Euro Bus Expo was held at the NEC in Birmingham, UK. Helen Dolphin was interested in finding out what the future of bus and coach travel might be for disabled passengers. She found mixed prospects.
This is the largest coach, bus and mini bus trade show in Europe and I thought a good place to start my visit would be the Accessibility zone where many companies had their accessible buses and mini buses on show. Mellor Coachcraft kindly showed me around one of their buses and I was interested to see that they had made provision for two wheelchair users travelling at the same time. I thought this was a good initiative as I often wish to travel on the bus with friends who are also wheelchair users and with the standard provision of one disabled space this is just not possible.
Although I rarely travel in mini buses as part of my everyday life, this changed when I had to attend a residential course to learn how to work with my new assistance dog Fairport. Over the course of two weeks I travelled in my wheelchair in a mini bus at least once a day which gave me a much wider insight into mini bus travel and its associated issues. With just me on the course there was plenty of room to strap my chair in but any more than about two wheelchairs to secure and it would have been much more problematic trying to strap the chair down. I was therefore interested to see a mini bus by TBC Conversions which could take up to six wheelchairs and I was told there are now some which can take eight.
Transport of wheelchair passengers is something I believe the mini bus industry has grasped and everyone at Bus Expo in the accessibility zone was keen to show me what they were doing to make travel safer and accessible for everyone. However, I didn’t get the same positive feedback from some other bus and coach stands. For example, many of the brand-new shiny coaches on display had no accessibility features and for wheelchair users coach travel would be impossible.
I asked one manufacturer why coaches were not being built with lifts as I had thought this was going to be law by 2020. However, this is not the case for all coaches as although coaches on scheduled services must be accessible by 2020, coaches used for holidays and trips do not. Sadly, I have already heard of wheelchair users being told to make their own way to attractions as they cannot be accommodated by the coach taking everyone else. It was explained to me that coaches with lifts cost a lot more to both fit and run which is why many do not have lifts. However, I still think this is the wrong approach as we are an aging population and it is the 72 plus age group who are most likely to go on coach holidays. I’m sure there will be a considerable number of older people who would find access onto a standard coach difficult. It was also suggested to me that if I was to travel on a coach with a lift, because it takes a while to operate, I may not wish to hold other passengers up! I don’t think this would be a concern for many wheelchair users and it wouldn’t bother me as I’m sure by the time everyone else had boarded I’d be safely in my space.
It was great to see Q’Straint’s Quantum on their stand and on board the Edinburgh tourist bus. Quantum has been received by many disabled people and organisations with great enthusiasm as for the first-time wheelchair users can be safely secured when travelling on the bus.
As I walked around the show I spoke to several people about the upcoming court ruling by the Supreme Court case concerning who has priority in the wheelchair space. Doug Paulley originally took legal action after he was denied access to a bus because the wheelchair space was occupied by a mother with a pushchair and the driver refused to force her to move. A ruling on the case is expected before the end of the year and it is hoped that the ruling will mean that bus companies must ensure that wheelchair-users have priority in using wheelchair spaces and that they must end their “first come, first served” policies. I was shocked to hear one person’s opinion that Doug Paulley should have got an earlier bus and then this wouldn’t have been an issue.
As well as the inside exhibition there were a number of coaches and buses outside which once the morning chill had gone from the air I went to look at. Here I found a bus with a space for wheelchairs and a space for pushchairs. It seemed the issue of who has priority has been designed out. However, it would still rely on pushchairs in the wheelchair space to move out if a wheelchair came on board but I believe this is still a positive step forward in bus design.
Having spoken to a supplier of ramps to buses who told me that in the past many bus drivers just put up a sign saying the ramp was broken so they wouldn’t have to load a wheelchair, I think the bus industry has come a long way. I believe the Supreme Court ruling will make some difference to wheelchair passengers but so will better designed buses with more spaces for wheelchairs and pushchairs. Although coaches are still going to be inaccessible for the foreseeable future I hope that market pressure will mean more services becoming accessible.