A transformation for disabled passengers

I have been bus minister for five months, and I wish to congratulate the bus sector for considerable progress in improving disabled people's access to services.

In this country there are over 11 million people with a limiting long-term illness, impairment or disability, and the year 2015 is a landmark in the movement for their travelling rights.

Twenty years ago, the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 achieved Royal Assent. As a result, the government was able to set deadlines by which buses and coaches must be made significantly more accessible to disabled people. The first of these deadlines, concerning single-decker buses weighing under 7.5 tonnes, passed on 1 January 2015.

Operators will be familiar with the legal requirements; they include space for wheelchairs, priority seats, handrails and devices to help disabled people get on and off .

Today I am delighted to report that the overwhelming majority of scheduled bus services operating in Britain already comply with the regulations, and that we are on track for virtually 100% before the January 2017 deadline for all remaining buses and January 2020 for coaches.

London is leading the way and is home to the largest accessible bus fleet in the world, with compliance running at 98%, and many other places are not far behind.

The difference this makes to disabled passengers can hardly be overstated, particularly when you compare their experience today with what it was like before the regulations came in. Back then, it was oft en hit and miss whether you would be able to get on board, let alone find a priority seat or a space for a wheelchair. And badly designed fl ooring would become slippery every time it rained – a real danger for older passengers on a moving bus.

So it is great news that on many buses these obstacles to travel have been addressed. For passengers, it can be the difference between being stuck at home and having the freedom to get to work, to see friends, or to the shops.

These changes are not just down to a change in the law. The majority of bus companies – large and small – deserve credit for rising to the challenge with enthusiasm and ingenuity.

Oxford Bus Company has been serving the city since 1882, but that has been no barrier to forward thinking. Its fleet is fully accessible, drivers receive disability awareness training, and since 2012 it has provided separate spaces for both wheelchairs and buggies. And for passengers who need them, the company has introduced free Journey Assistance Cards. They are a fuss-free way for a passenger to show drivers or fellow travellers that they may need extra help, such as time to reach a priority seat before the bus pulls off.

Oxford Bus Company's commitment to accessibility is far from unique. I have also been
impressed to hear of the efforts of operators such as Reading Buses, Trentbarton, Abellio and others. I would be interested to learn of more examples of good practice.

When firms such as these work hard to serve disabled passengers, we all benefit. Even if we are not disabled ourselves, many of our friends, family and colleagues are. And we know that inclusive design is good design; using the bus is easier for every-one when there is lots of room on board, there are plenty of handrails, and we are not worried about slipping over every time the driver applies the brakes.

There is still some way to go, however. Around 17% of the fleet is not yet fully accessible, and there are further deadlines in 2016, 2017 and 2020, covering all remaining buses and coaches. Of course, people expect the government to take enforcement seriously. So we have put aside £100,000 a year to ensure the Driver & Vehicle Standards Agency can continue to respond to any operators found in breach of the regulations.

There is plenty more that can be done beyond the regulatory minimum, too. I will encourage operators to install audio-visual announcement systems on their vehicles wherever possible. Ramps and other boarding devices must be kept in good condition. And as the Oxford Bus Company and others have shown through disability awareness training programmes, skilled and helpful drivers can make the biggest difference to disabled passengers. The DfT will be working with the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Group to research the uptake and quality of training available.

During 2015, the bus industry in general should reflect with pride on what has been achieved so far. For many disabled passengers, it has been a transformation. We should not stop now. The lives of millions of people in our communities are being improved through greater opportunity to travel, ending possible social exclusion and isolation. Over the next few years, I expect the industry will use its characteristic ingenuity and enthusiasm to make further improvements...

Reference: Transport Times, October 2015 Issue

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