A few weeks ago, Transport for All (TfA) organised a Pan London Mobility Forum with a focus on bus accessibility. This was a unique occasion for organisations in the disability sector as well as for TfA members to question those who run bus services in London about what they are doing to ensure that disabled and older people can travel with independence.
We were very pleased to welcome Mike Weston, Director of Buses at Transport for London (TfL) and John Trayner, Managing Director for Go-Ahead London. The meeting was chaired by TfA member Gwynneth Pedler and introduced by our Chair Alan Benson.
Access to buses has really improved but there are still many issues faced by disabled and older people such as broken ramps, hearing loops not working, falls on buses due to drivers not giving passengers enough time to sit down, and of course the issue around the wheelchair priority space.
There are 25,000 bus drivers in London and therefore training is important to ensure that they deliver a quality service. A TfA member pointed out that whilst most bus drivers are good, some are failing to offer the right service to disabled and older people. This general feeling was shared by Mike Weston who explained: “Our Customer satisfaction surveys said that people are generally happy with the reliability and frequency of the service, but we didn’t do well with driver interaction with customers. Our postbag of complaints supports this. Half are about the interaction with drivers and 40% of those 50% are about buses not stopping”.
In order to correct that, TfL has developed 2 different training schemes:
- The City & Guilds training course for all new starters
- A programme called Hello London for all London’s bus drivers
The new City & Guilds course was rolled out in 2016 for all new starters and replaces the BTEC qualification (including accessibility elements from the All Aboard training course). This qualification requires drivers to reflect on customer interactions and provide evidence of where they have utilised their skills and knowledge. It incorporates the current disability awareness module that was developed in collaboration with Scope. This module will be updated later this year and Mike Weston promised to approach TfA for support.
Hello London is a two-day course focusing on customer experience. The training started in June and is delivered primarily through interaction with actors. Its objective is to demonstrate good and bad customer service. Every two days, 100 drivers will undertake this training course and learn about PA use, conflict management and understanding various customer needs. Mike Weston gave the example of a drama session showing an incident between a passenger and a driver because the driver looked ahead when answering the passenger. As raised during this event, this is an important issue for deaf people.
Managing Director for Go-Ahead London, John Trayner, added that bus companies have to train drivers at least 7 hours a year in order for the drivers to keep their licence, and supplement it with individual training if needed. As part of their contract with TfL, bus companies like Go-Ahead have to evaluate their staff. They use mystery traveller surveys and standards surveys for that John Trayner explained: “Examiners measure standards of driving and drivers are scored between 1 and 4. One is good and worth a free canteen tea and a voucher. 4 is out. Points are added up and each garage is judged for the best Driver Quality Monitoring (DQM) score in London”. John Trayner was very proud to say that Go-Ahead have 5 of their garages in the top 10.
The second part of the panel discussion was about accessibility.
Mike Weston explained that all buses are now low-floor, in accordance with the new regulation; all buses must be low-floor and wheelchair accessible by the end of this year.
He said that all buses now have ramps and signs – such as wheelchair priority – in place but they now have to make sure that those ramps work and focus on the problem of driver and passengers’ behaviour. You may have seen TfL’s new campaign using Mr Men characters to try to get customers to think how to make journeys easier for all.
We also spoke about the problem of the wheelchair priority space often being occupied by buggy users. Earlier this year, TfL ran a buggy summit with buggy manufacturers and some parent organisations with an aim of discussing how to make buggies more bus-suitable. Mike Weston explained: “New parents don’t always think about it. They see a wide buggy and think it’s great but don’t think about using it on the bus. Manufacturers now have good ideas and will look at branding on lightweight buggies for buses”. TfL also launched a competition to select the best buggy for buses. “There are some small compact buggies around, which allow the wheelchair space to be shared with wheelchair users” said Mike Weston.
TfA member Susan New highlighted the fact that “Brighton & Hove Bus and Lothian Buses have vehicles with separate dedicated wheelchair and buggy spaces to avoid conflict” and that TfL is “years behind in term of accessibility”. Mike Weston explained that this is possible in Brighton because buses have only one set of doors at the front. Buses in London need two sets of doors in order to handle the passenger traffic.
There was an interesting question about broken ramps: “How can you ensure that buses with broken ramps are not allowed on the road?”. John Trayner explained that before starting their journey every driver has a duty to do an inspection of their bus; this includes checking if the ramp is working. He insisted on the fact that “buses should not leave the garage if the ramp is broken. If a ramp fails in service we expect it to be repaired as soon as possible. Our engineering staffs work 24/7. If drivers pass the garage they should swap the vehicle”. Alan Benson pointed out the fact that in some cases buses are out all day and are not checked when drivers change: “I suggest that when drivers change, each driver does an inspection and then the bus can be removed if the ramp doesn’t work”. To the question “is that reasonable?”, John Trayner answered “yes“.
How are contracts awarded to bus companies in the capital by TfL?
The last topic of this panel discussion was: how are contracts awarded to bus companies in the capital by TfL?
The process is different to outside London, where anyone can run a service if they have the qualifications. In London there are various bus companies running under TfL contract and subject to its requirements. The following chart shows the work split between those companies.
Go-Ahead for example, operate about 24% of the network, mainly in South London.
These bus companies have a five-year initial contract and if the performance criteria are met, TfL adds a two-year extension. Mike Weston explained that “Revenue goes to TfL not the operator. TfL specifies the frequency, first bus times, last bus times, and routes. It is all centrally planned to try to satisfy demand. Operators contract to deliver to that specification. Fares are set by the Mayor – the current Mayor wants to leave fares as they are for four years”. Mike Weston explained that “vehicles are owned by the bus companies but meet TfL specifications such as the legal requirement for the wheelchair priority space which is larger than the small legal minimum requirement”.
Finally Mike Weston insisted on the fact that cost is important but they may pay more to award a contract to a better operator.
A TfA member asked why only central London seems to have new buses while other parts of London get second-hand vehicles. John Trayner explained that TfL contracts are for 5 years (adding 2 years if TfL is satisfied after the 5 years) and they expect a bus to last 12 years: “this is the reason why we see older buses”. But Mike Weston added that TfL require vehicles to be refurbished during the first year of a contract with new flooring and seats: “Some mid-life buses had a single seat in the wheelchair bay and now it is removed to make the bay bigger”.
Transport for All will continue to work and lobby London Buses and the capital’s bus operators to ensure that they provide equal, safe and accessible service to disabled and older people.