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Success at the First Group AGM

Blog by James Matheson. This blog and its content reflect the views of the author only.

“Following contact between Transport for All (TfA) and Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC); myself, James Matheson, and Marion Nisbet attended First Group’s AGM in Aberdeen on Thursday 16th July. We were facilitated by the campaign organisation ShareAction, which encourages people to attend company AGMs to raise social justice and environmental issues directly with the company. TfA has campaigned over many years to improve accessibility on rail and bus services, and we took up their mantle as we made our way to First Group’s AGM, armed with searching questions.

We left Glasgow Queen Street station on an early morning train, its arrival in Aberdeen leaving time to spare. As a wheelchair user, the service I received at Queen Street station was immediate and an example to all. Having said that, it was early morning and I was the only wheelchair user around. Given the limited number of people employed by train companies to provide ease of access for wheelchair users when boarding or alighting trains, this exemplary service would have been more problematic if there were more than one wheelchair user, elderly or visually impaired person, or anyone requiring assistance.

As there was a considerable walk to the hotel where the AGM took place, which would have been difficult for Marion having suffered a spinal injury herself some years past, we arrived in style. Eh, I mean a taxi! Ironically, the transport organised by First Group to return shareholders to Aberdeen centre was not wheelchair accessible. However, First Group did arrange for a cab.

Call for Turn-Up-And-Go Assistance

The AGM itself was little more than explaining to shareholders the progress that First Group has made with its transport portfolio, the increase in profits for First Group, and as a consequence, no doubt, increased dividends for shareholders, as well as the handing over of the chairmanship from John McFarlane to Wolfhart Hauser.

My question concerned assistance on First Great Western and First Trans-Pennine rail services for wheelchair users. On these services, First Group require wheelchair users who travel on these trains to book twenty-four hours in advance. However, First Scotrail, now Abellio, request four hours’ notice before a journey, whereas c2c are introducing turn-up-and-go assistance across all their services

I pointed out to First Group that when I go out with friends, I don’t know exactly when I’ll make a return journey. When I attend a meeting, that meeting may overrun. Requesting that wheelchair users book twenty-four hours in advance for any given journey is basically offering a two-tier system. A lot of the time when I make a train journey, the staff are really helpful and do everything they can to get me on a train. But on occasion, I turn up at a station and I have to debate with an employee about boarding a train, during which time the train has come and gone; whereas it would have been very simple to have got the ramp. Other passengers aren’t asked to justify why or when they are getting on a train, it is embarrassing.

Turning to the board, I said: “As I’m sure you can agree, First can do better. Putting your customer’s first means making travel convenient, not putting up barriers. London Underground has provided a turn-up-and-go service for many years now, which Mr. O’Toole may be aware of, given his previous role with London Underground during 2003-2009. Would the board agree to meet with Transport for All to discuss making First Group rail services more accessible, so wheelchair users can use First trains on an equal basis with non-disabled passengers?”

The response to this question seemed pretty positive, as the outgoing Chairman, John McFarlane, turned to the board stating ‘We should do something about this, as a matter of course’. Dave Redgewell, a First Group shareholder and wheelchair user, remarked that there were similar access and travelling problems in the South West.

Wheelchair priority

Then it was Marion’s turn. Marion fixed the board with a steely gaze and told them about the problems she encountered using First buses in Glasgow. She pointed out that despite the court case brought by Doug Paulley against FirstBus regarding wheelchair priority in the wheelchair bay, drivers in Glasgow never asked buggy users to make space for wheelchairs. This made travel stressful and meant many wheelchair users just gave up using the bus: on occasion she’d had to intervene herself to stand up for disabled people’s right to get on a bus. Marion finished by asking FirstBus to ensure that all their Conditions of Carriage protected wheelchair priority.

Again, the response was very positive and Tim O’Toole, the First Group Chief Executive, stated that he would be happy to travel on a bus in Glasgow.

Selfie of marion nisbet with tim o’toole, the first group chief executive

Selfie of Marion Nisbet with Tim O’Toole, the First Group Chief Executive

Following the AGM, I spoke to Dave about him coming to Glasgow to check out the buses. However, he was quick to remark that we would have to take separate buses, as the buses cannot fit more than one wheelchair user – part of the problem, I’d suggest!

I also discussed the access problems on rail with Mark Hopwood, MD First Great Western, and Dave Gausby, Interim Managing Director, UK Rail. I suggested that train carriages could be converted to take additional wheelchair users on any given day, and easily re-converted when not in use by a wheelchair user. Mark Hopwood and Dave Gausby said they are happy to meet with TfA.

This point about the need for train carriages to accommodate more than one wheelchair user was emphasised by my experience catching a return train to Glasgow. When I got to the one and only carriage made available for wheelchair users, there were an additional two people using wheelchairs also boarding the train.

When leaving the First Group AGM, I felt that some positive outcome could emerge from attending First Group’s AGM. However, it would mean TfA continuing to pressure private transport operators, in addition to maintaining pressure at the legislative level. We need private transport operators to do more than simply meet the statutory minimum; and go beyond this to provide truly excellent service to their disabled customers”