The British government’s long-term “Accessibility for All” scheme has seen many stations enhanced to cater for ‘persons of restricted mobility’. Indeed there is a legal obligation to comply by 1st January 2020. We all recognise that wheelchair users have special needs that should be catered for wherever practicable. The high cost of installing lifts is, however, offset by the value of the lift to many other passengers including those weighed down by shopping and luggage, the elderly and parents with young children.
“I've got nothing against your right leg. The trouble is – neither have you.”
A famous 1960s sketch by Peter Cook and Dudley Moore featured a one-legged man auditioning – entirely inappropriately – for the role of Tarzan.
One type of person with restricted mobility that is rarely considered by the railway industry, and transport planners in general, is the one-legged man or its near equivalent: someone using crutches.
Railfuture director Jerry Alderson had a minor accident whilst on a business trip in Vienna that required an immediate Achilles tendon operation with a five-day stay in hospital and led to the inability to use that leg for six weeks. The restriction on leg movement is fairly standard. For the first two weeks no weight can be put on the foot at all; then the stitches are removed and the angle of the cast is changed (from almost tippy-toe to become closer to 90 degrees) allowing a little weight on the foot when standing still; then for the final three weeks equal weight (50% on each foot) when standing still. After six weeks of hopping around, the cast (or protective boot) is finally removed and normal walking is possible once again but with some difficulty (and carrying a crutch for assistance). A course of physiotherapy then commences.
The first two weeks are by far the most difficult in terms of mobility. One foot has to take the full weight of the body when standing upright and just five minutes standing still on one foot can seem like an eternity. Until upper body strength is built up any ‘walking’ is exceedingly tiring, and extreme caution is needed to avoid falling over when the leg is still healing. Towards the end one almost forgets about the injury and must avoid inadvertently walking with the foot.
This article describes the experience of a single day’s travel in Vienna during week five of the healing process. The aim was to cover as much of the city on as many trams, trains and U-Bahn services as possible to see just how friendly - or otherwise – the well-funded modern Vienna system is. Having travelled on its entire rail-based network and previously considered it to be a truly excellent transport system the admiring view was dashed when faced with using the system on crutches.
The man with a plan
Experience had shown that a brisk three-minute walk took ten minutes on crutches; a five-minute walk became 20 and a ten-minute walk ending up lasting an hour. The exponential increase was caused by exhaustion.
Before embarking on the day’s adventure a route was chosen (with a detailed knowledge of the city’s transport system built up over three years of regular visits) to completely avoid any stairs or escalators, minimise walking distance (and standing time) at each interchange and maximise the opportunity for sitting down in order to recover one’s strength. Time spent was not important, and waiting until a ‘compliant’ vehicle arrived was acceptable.
The key problem was going to be boarding and alighting vehicles, not least because of the self-imposed pressure not to delay the departure. The solution was to only use vehicles with low floors so that there was very little height difference between them and the platform (or kerb in the case of trams).
A step too far
Whilst the railway in Britain has high platforms (almost a metre above rail head) on the European mainland platforms are much lower, and a high step-up is often required, not helped when there may also be a significant gap between train and platform.
It is not as simple as raising platform heights because across Europe there are double-deck trains for national and cross-border services (Austria’s regional ones are called City Shuttle). These trains have a low floor in the centre (the stairs to the top deck are at either end).
In rural parts of Austria some stations are little more than ground-level halts. In 2015 modernisation of Vienna’s Penzing station abolished the ground-level narrow platform as part of accessibility improvements and three of the four remaining platforms are now fully in use.
In Austria the state-owned national train company ÖBB operates many commuter and regional trains that were built in the 1980s and require people to climb at least two internal steps (see the two bottom photos at the top of this article). Grab rails are provided so it is possible to haul oneself up. However, more recently the operator has invested in a fleet of modern trains for commuter, long-distance and cross-border services. Its modern local and regional trains have seating at two levels with the low level ones being accessible.
Whilst ÖBB’s cross-border Railjet trains offer a superb customer experience that few other countries can match, accessibility had not been given the priority it deserved and passengers still have four steps to climb.
Only the very recent trains (such as the superb Cityjet regional trains) include ‘gap fillers’ that automatically reach out to touch the platform edge. The photo below shows the original and latest variants of ÖBB’s modern trains. None of the tram fleet has this device, which is surprising given that the 1960s-built trams did.
Some Vienna U-Bahn trains have had ‘gap fillers’ (designed to avoid accidents on curved platforms) for several years.
The automated gap fillers only are only installed in the end carriages of U-Bahn trains. This makes sense since the lifts are almost always at the end of the platforms (usually both ends). Therefore the dedicated area for wheelchairs and bicycles is located in the carriage at each end. Whilst one can walk through the train to the other end, the aisles are not wide enough for wheelchair users to do so. One oversight is the passenger information displays, which on some stock are located only in the gangway between carriages. There are none at the driver’s cab end so the display is too far away to read. It is not uncommon for people with restricted mobility also to have weaker eyesight (e.g. people with diabetes) so this seems a significant mistake.
During the entire day no assistance was needed from any rail staff to board or alight trains, which is a good job because staffing is minimal on the almost entirely driver-only operated system. On a couple of occasions other passengers assisted, although it wasn’t really necessary, and it felt like a reward for having helped so many mothers lift their prams onto and off trains.
Can you give me a lift?
Experience of Vienna’s transport system suggested that the lifts would be no problem. On the day every lift was in working order – not something one would be confident about in Britain’s railway.
Occasionally lifts are taken out of service for refurbishment and these occasions are always announced in advance at stations and throughout the closure period audibly on trains. Lifts on the other platform would be kept open so that someone relying upon it could continue to the next station and then come back. In the case of island platforms the loss of a lift is rarely a problem as almost all stations have lifts at both ends of platforms.
It is exceedingly rare to see multiple adjacent lifts at stations in Britain where the government, operators, and Network Rail seem to know the “price of everything and value of nothing”. However, many stations in Vienna – even those outside the centre - have pairs of lifts next to each other.
In Vienna all of the lifts are fully glazed (unlike those in Britain that one might describe as a potential ‘rape cage’ or mugger’s dream). Whilst the intention is probably to give maximum light, security and be welcoming it has an obvious advantage for the mobility impaired. One can see when the lift is arriving, it is possible to see if anyone is already inside (and therefore not be in their way) and in the case of multiple adjacent lifts, one has additional time to move to the correct lift.
The photo montage below shows that several large stations have three adjacent lifts to provide both extra capacity and resilience. The lift buttons are often on a pedestal (right) about a metre in front of the lift door. This is designed for people in wheelchairs who may not be able to reach far enough in front of themselves if the button was on the lift. The help point is located just before it and has buttons at both standing and seating height. However, an oversight is the lack of a seat next to it.
One criticism though is that the signage inside some lifts were not helpful. At Vienna Hauptbahnhof the intention was to get a tram, which was at same level as trains but this was not indicated. A passenger using stairs would have easily known which floor to use.
A seat, a seat, my kingdom for a seat
In some British stations you are lucky to find any seats, including those recently re-built at enormous expense such as Birmingham New Street and King’s Cross. At the latter there are no public seats at any point between the taxi rank and the train door. Seats are only for those spending money at retail outlets.
Vienna’s new Hauptbahnhof, which has 12 long through platforms, is claimed to have 800 seats. Most are at the platform but many are in the concourse as well. However, across Vienna’s numerous stations it seems that seating is installed for passengers waiting patiently for a train rather than people urgently in need of a rest to get their breath back, such as the elderly and, um, those using crutches.
Currently the U-Bahn network has just five lines and there are a mere ten stations where interchange between them is possible, although it will grow to 15 in 2022 when a sixth line opens (the first to be "driverless"). Unlike London Underground no lines share tracks and every line is entirely grade separated in order to maximise frequency and punctuality. Inevitably the price paid by passengers is the need to walk further.
It is a really long walk from U3 lift to the mainline platforms lift at Westbahnhof station but there are no seats along that route (see top photo below). Even at the more compact Floridsdorf station, which has a bus stop on one side of the station and tram lines at the other, there is not a single seat on the ground floor (see bottom photo below), although there are at U-Bahn level (one below) and train platforms (one above).
Is there a concern about the homeless using the station as somewhere to sleep? With appropriate seat design this problem can be easily overcome. At the Aspern Nord U2 station it has basic benches with a handle in the middle preventing someone from lying on it (see top right hand photo below).
The U3 station at Ottakring has seats placed at frequent intervals as one walks to the lift, which is really helpful. Despite notices on the trains and trams recognising multiple types of restricted mobility very few stations provide this.
I’m a passenger, let me out of here
Unlike the London Underground the doors do not automatically open in the carriages, but are passenger operated. Both the older U-Bahn and mainline trains have handles to move to one side to open the doors (as shown above), which may mean propping oneself up against the wall to exert a sufficient pull without falling over. Modern carriages have push buttons, which sensibly can be pressed prior to the train stopping and will then open that door once the train has stopped. This allows someone with restricted mobility to exit more quickly.
Although most stations entrances had either automatic sliding doors or the doors were left open during hours of operation, there are also internal hinged (fire) doors at many stations. Not a single one of these had a button to open them so it was necessary to push heavily to get through it.
Back in the UK
This article has only looked at a single day moving around Vienna on its generally superb rail-based transport system. Over the course of six weeks the staff at all hotels, Vienna Airport (but sadly not at understaffed Heathrow Airport) and Britain’s railway stations have been excellent.
In particular, the Abellio Greater Anglia staff at Cambridge station offered a superb train-door to taxi rank wheelchair service on the spot at midnight as nothing had been pre-booked (having not expected the train to arrive at the island platform). On a previous occasion they provided a wheelchair at both ends twice. Even the operation of King’s Cross station by a different TOC did not present any problems and wheelchair assistance was waiting at the door of the correct carriage. When returning the train was held for a minute to enable boarding and as it was full in standard class permission was given (without it being requested) to sit in first class.
Over a six-week period taxis have been a necessity but, as this article shows, public transport was usable too. However, a person with a short term ‘disability’ does not get any of the financial concessions that a permanently disabled person is entitled to. Should Britain’s railway allow a person with short-term restricted mobility to purchase a disabled person’s railcard covering a limited validity period? It is certainly something that Railfuture will be discussing with the rail industry.
Accessibility issues were also covered in an October 2015 article entitled Accessible Travel by Railfuture’s Director of Policy Ian Brown.
Railfuture is an independent campaigning organisation that is devoted to improving Britain’s railway for all current and future passengers as well as freight customers. It is run entirely by volunteers and relies upon annual membership fees from thousands of members across Britain, and beyond. Please consider joining Railfuture to show your support.
Read previous articles by this writer: Delay Repay Losers, 20 Years Going in Circles, Mountain of Ideas, Sent to Coventry, Fare Rises - RPI vs CPI, New Year, Better Railway, Nine-Days-Rail-Surge, Tube Usage Hits Record, Passenger Growth Future?, Felixstowe Cut-Off, Passenger Priorities , Passenger Frustration, Accessible Travel, Eurostar Snapshot Survey, Stansted Experience, Widening the NET, Lacklustre Busway, Expand Eurocity network, Government backs Wi-Fi, Cheapest fares by law?, Bring Back BR?, Public Sector Franchises, Fare Increase Viewpoint and Tube Staffing.