When Transport for All member Mohammed wanted to travel from Mile End to Oxford Circus, he didn’t expect that an entire station would be evacuated because of lack of staff assistance.
Since London Underground cut 800 staff last year, more and more people who need assistance when using the tube. 650 of the axed posts were Customer Service Assistant roles, providing frontline help at ticket offices and at the gateline. London Underground staff are trained to provide staff assistance on demand to those who need it – but with far fewer available, this often does not happen in practice.
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Transport for All have seen a rise in complaints from people having to wait longer for assistance, or from people who don’t get assistance at all and are left stranded on platforms and at stations, and Mohammed’s story is a typical one.
“I wanted to get to Oxford Circus from Mile End”, says Mohammed who is blind and uses a cane. “So I asked the TfL staff at Mile End to inform their colleagues at Oxford Circus to assist me when I arrive there.”
But when Mohammed arrived, nobody was there to assist him.
He asked a member of the public to help him and the man guided him to the information intercom system and immediately left. Mohammed pressed the first button he could find. To his surprise, nobody answered, but there was an announcement that people should leave the station immediately.
The intercom information points have two buttons: one for information and one for emergencies. Because none of the buttons have signage in Braille or tactile font, Mohammed couldn’t know which one was the information button. Presumably, he pressed the fire alarm.
“It didn’t take long before the station manager came and asked me if I had pressed the fire alarm. I told him that I didn’t know which button I had pressed, and that I only needed someone to guide me out of the station.”
Mohammed thinks that the staff cuts make the situation worse for blind tube users. “Often I have to wait very long when I need assistance and the situation has become worse in the past months.”
Mohammed is not the only TfL passenger who faces difficulties getting assistance since Transport for London reduces its staff at London Underground stations. Susanna is also blind. She says: “You have to be very patient these days when using the tube. It can take 20 minutes until someone has time to bring you down to the platform.”
Susanna finds that the staff is always friendly. “It’s not their fault, most of the time. They are very busy and my feeling is, they are understaffed.” Blind friends tell her that they have had problems getting assistance during lunch time. “It can be that small stations are not staffed at all at certain times.”
Guide dog owner Artur travels a lot within London. “I’m lucky that I have had a guide dog since May who is able to manoeuver through stations, so I need assistance less often. It got more and more difficult to get assistance and the waiting times where often too long recently. I was told more than once by staff at the gate that they aren’t allowed to leave the gates to guide me down to the platform, and that no other colleague is available.”
In October, the BBC reported that staff at Victoria station was told not to help any blind passengers during rush hours. A leaked document advised workers not to provide assistance when a one-way escalator was in operation. London Underground said they only wanted people with visual impairments (VIPs) to avoid crowded conditions while work to refurbish the escalators are in place. Meanwhile, the union RMT has argued if they had enough staff, they could assist VIPs regardless of the refurbishments.