Without a conductor on public transport, accessibility and safety end up in deep doo-doos
After Doug Paulley, a wheelchair-user from Wetherby, won his Supreme Court discrimination case against FirstGroup, which had had a policy on its buses of merely requesting non-wheelchair-users to vacate the wheelchair-space, I hoped that the “wheelchair versus pushchair” argument would finally be settled. I hoped it would be recognised that while most parents with babies can collapse the pushchair and occupy a standard seat, a wheelchair-user can hardly vacate his chair, fold it down while sitting on the floor and then crawl to the seats, and so the impossibility of sitting anywhere other than that seat-less area at the front of a bus, or by the doors of a train, must outweigh mere inconvenience of sitting elsewhere.
Sadly, it seems that my initial, euphoric reaction to the ruling was premature. As anyone who has ever used a bus is doubtless aware, the driver is the only member of staff on board. And the driver cannot leave the cab, except in an emergency; doing so otherwise, even to enforce a request that a non-wheelchair-user vacate the wheelchair-space, would be a disciplinary offence. The most the driver can do if an able-bodied person in the wheelchair-space refuses to budge is rephrase the request as an order, and then perhaps refuse to drive on in the hope that recalcitrance will give way to shame stemming from other passengers’ irritation. But what if the driver refuses to do anything beyond telling them to move? We return to square-one, that’s what happens.
Such a scenario is bad enough, make no mistake, but it’s much worse when passengers side with the non-wheelchair-user, and the driver is equally hostile. Such was the experience, five days after the Supreme Court ruling in Mr Paulley’s case, of Kirsty Shephard, a wheelchair-user from Wakefield who was refused space on a bus even though the woman whose child’s pushchair was in the wheelchair-space removed it without needing to be told. Far from executing his duty to ensure that Ms Shephard had access to the wheelchair-space, the driver whipped-up the crowd into expressing hostility towards her; after he told them that they had better alight as Ms Shephard was preventing the journey from continuing, they responded by shouting that they had homes to get to, and she should just get the next bus. The driver remained intransigent even after Ms Shephard spoke to his manager, and the service was eventually terminated.
Whether the despicable conduct of this bus-driver led to him being disciplined and/or dismissed has not been disclosed. More broadly, the incident reveals two points that deserve consideration. The first is that disabled people, particularly (but not exclusively) wheelchair-users, ipso-facto face much greater challenges in getting about and leading their lives as normally as possible than everyone else. Why should someone in Ms Shephard’s position have to wait for over an hour for another bus, when an able-bodied person would face no such inconvenience in identical circumstances? She may have had an appointment to get to, and been unable to wait so long. And supposing it had been the last bus of the day? Would the passengers who reacted to her plight so disgracefully have condoned leaving her on the street all night, unable to get home?
The second point that Ms Shephard and Mr Paulley’s cases display is the need for a second member of staff to be present on public transport, who can manage the passengers when necessary. For if the driver cannot leave the cab to ensure wheelchair-users’ access to the wheelchair-space, its occupant refuses to move and other passengers react aggressively, we return, as I’ve said, to square-one, leaving the Supreme Court’s ruling looking utterly toothless; unless drivers are to be allowed to leave the cab, and risk cash fares being stolen, a conductor is inescapably necessary to give it effect.
This brings me neatly on to the seemingly-interminable saga that is Southern Rail’s dispute with the RMT trade-union, ostensibly over who operates the doors, but whose real agenda is adoption of single-crewed trains. While many commuters have, understandably, lost patience with the union, its concerns over the safety of having drivers operate the doors when their view along the length of the train can be severely restricted, have not been adequately addressed. As a train-driver called James Grant recently pointed out in an interview with Private Eye, drivers’ monitors don’t show the length of the platform, inevitably leading to incidents where, in the rush to board, families and groups caught in the driver’s extensive blind-spots have been separated and members left behind. It’s also foreseeable that disabled and elderly passengers who cannot move fast are in danger of getting trapped in the doors if they board in the driver’s blind-spots, which are so great that were a train to stop on a curve, or under anything, he wouldn’t be able to see if the back was on fire. To be safe, Driver-Only-Operation depends on too many variables working a certain way, yet the odds on Britain’s cash-starved public-transport networks of everything that can go right doing so (a reverse-Sod’s Law) are nil.
Those who have sided with Southern have asserted ad-nauseam that Southern just want to reclassify the conductor as an “on-board supervisor”, responsible primarily for ticket-inspection, and that dispensing with the second crew-member has not been contemplated, but this is barely plausible. Conductors as ticket-inspectors? Many stations now have automatic turnstiles, so the ticketless can’t even approach the train. To push the refreshments-trolley? There is no refreshments-trolley on commuter trains, and they have increasingly been replaced in long-haulers by a buffet-carriage. To uphold public order? Nowadays, in case of violence, the driver must merely call the police on the off-chance that someone turns up at the next station. It’s obvious that DOO is a step towards trains staffed by the driver alone, like buses, with nobody to manage or assist the passengers when necessary.
It’s not just in emergencies, and to ensure access for disabled passengers, that a conductor is necessary on public transport. Sometimes chaos reigns through the operating-company’s fault. Here I also accuse Virgin Trains East Coast for removing conductors; on a pre-Christmas trip to Edinburgh, it emerged that most of the seats were double-booked, forcing half the passengers to stand, and conductor to sort it out there came none. The result was predictably infuriating; the need to retain conductors on trains and restore them on buses is therefore vital to implement the Supreme Court’s ruling on disability access to public-transport, and provide assistance to passengers when they require it.