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London’s Tube network is not accessible enough

Blog by Chris Stapleton. This blog and its content reflect the views of the author only.

London’s Tube system is not currently anything like fully accessible to wheelchair users or people with mobility problems. Transport for London (TfL) offers many excuses for the lack of accessibility provision on the Tube. But as the Crossrail project has shown, engineering solutions to a wide range of problems can be found and implemented in the most difficult of situations.

TfL claims that around a quarter of Tube stations have step-free access. That amounts to around 67 out of 270 stations (compare this with Berlin’s 100 out of 173 stations). But in Zone 1 there are only nine stations with step-free access from street to platform, and of these only four stations are step-free from the street to all trains running through those stations.

This means that a wheelchair user who wants to get around London is very unlikely to find the Tube at all useful, especially if the journey involves Zone 1, or if lifts are out of order (which is often the case). Instead, wheelchair users rely heavily on buses to get around.

Well-trained staff

There are many good points about accessibility on the Tube. Staff are well-trained, and generally helpful and friendly. There have been several improvements in the last couple of years, including more lifts; more raised areas on platforms allowing step-free access from the platform onto the train; and the provision of manual boarding ramps at some stations. But these improvements are progressing at a snail’s pace and still leave three-quarters of the Tube network completely inaccessible.

TfL claims that every bus is accessible, and indeed all buses are fitted with wheelchair ramps. But there are still many problems for wheelchair users attempting to use buses: unhelpful drivers, broken or unusable ramps, and baby-buggies blocking the wheelchair space.

Even if the bus fleet were as fully accessible as TfL would like us to think, it still typically takes about twice as long to get anywhere by bus (and often even longer) compared with the equivalent tube journey.

So the question I would like to ask is why are wheelchair users excluded from the Tube system, and forced to undertake long, difficult and often stressful journey by bus?

TfL gives many excuses for this, citing geography, geology and architecture as the underlying reasons for the lack of accessibility provision. Of course there will always be a few small or cramped old stations where installation of lifts is going to be unfeasible.

But, as the Crossrail project has shown, engineering marvels can be achieved in the most unpromising, cramped and difficult environments. The recent boring of a Crossrail tunnel in the extremely narrow gap (nicknamed ‘the eye of the needle’) between a Northern Line tunnel and an escalator shaft at Tottenham Court Road Tube Station shows that we have the skills, money and technology to overcome problems of geography, geology and architecture.

Accessibility – not a high enough priority

What is lacking it seems is the will to design and provide solutions to make all of London’s Tube stations accessible. This will is lacking because an accessible Tube system is not seen as a sufficiently high priority for the investment of the required resources – resources which would cost a tiny fraction of the budget required for Crossrail.

It is a principle enshrined in the Equality Act of 2010 that it is unlawful when providing goods or services to treat anyone less favourably for a reason connected with their disability. We must have an accessible Tube system. Disabled and older people should have the same right to travel by Tube as everyone else in society: it is not right that we should be so excluded from the best and fastest means of getting around London.

by Chris Stapleton