Moves towards improving the accessibility of long-distance coaches had lagged behind developments in mainstream urban bus services. To some extent, this was attributed to the different functional requirements of coach services,
- Coaches stop infrequently, and do so at sites which vary in nature, from coach stations and principal stops, where assistance with boarding is usually available, to more rural locations where facilities can be far more basic;
- Although coaches do use some roadside stops under normal circumstances, a high proportion of their route follows the trunk road network. Therefore, whilst they benefit from infrastructure improvements, the benefit delivered is less significant, and so the incentive to form Bus Quality Partnerships with a particular authority is reduced;
- Coach design has traditionally been predicated upon an approach whereby the lower level of the vehicle is used for a baggage hold, whilst passengers ascend to an elevated seating position which offers enhanced views, which is in conflict with the principle of level access.
The research was commissioned in order to test the viability of an accessible long-distance coach on the Bath - London Heathrow - London Victoria route.
The concept for the research project was that it should monitor the impact of running wheelchair accessible coaches on the Bath – Heathrow – London coach route. More specifically, the objective of the monitoring project was to provide a comparison of usage of the service, particularly by wheelchair users, immediately before, and then a year after, the introduction of the lift-equipped vehicles.
The general methodology for doing this was to:
- Mount a major survey of passenger numbers and passengers’ opinions immediately prior to the introduction of the accessible service, and then to perform a “before & after” analysis of the impact of the service, by mounting a duplicate survey a year later;
- Elicit wheelchair using passengers’ reactions to, and experiences with, the accessible service by interviewing them by telephone after their trip(s);
- Carry out a stakeholder consultation exercise with drivers and operators, both immediately before the introduction of the service, and after the service had been running for a year; and
- Conduct a detailed examination of the accessibility characteristics of the coach route and of the vehicles themselves.
The assessment of the accessible coach trial was based on one to one interviews with users of the service, drivers of the coaches and their managers, and maintenance staff at the depot.
The chosen method for obtaining the views and experiences of wheelchair users on the 403 service was telephone interviews:
- Type of wheelchair used on the journey
- Description of journey (origin, destination, purpose, mode used to access the coach)
- Whether advance booking procedure was used
- Using the wheelchair lift (safety, speed, any feeling of stigmatisation, comfort, driver attitude)
- Facilities and the coach stop / station (accessibility, personal security, information, comfort)
- On board the coach (design of restraints, comfort of ride)
- Improvements desired.
Drivers were interviewed at Bath Bus and Coach Station during March 2002 and March 2004. This involved an informal ten-minute discussion covering general experiences of driving the new coaches and using the wheelchair lift. Specific issues addressed were as follows;
- Experience of driving the 403 route before and during the trial
- Views on training
- Impact of the additional length of the coaches
- Number of wheelchair users carried during the trial
- Experiences of using the wheelchair lift (impact on stop dwell times, driver safety, passenger safety, dealing with disabled people generally)
- Whether the
The study demonstrated that it was feasible to operate an accessible coach on a scheduled long-distance route. Unfortunately, the accessible service was subject to very low usage by disabled travellers, in spite of efforts to improve publicity and marketing for the service and an extension of the monitoring period from one to two years. In total, there were 41 one-way trips by wheelchair users on this route in the 24-month period from April 2002 to March 2004; with most of these being associated with return trips, it is estimated that this represented some 30 individual travellers.
It was this low level of usage that contributed considerably to any problems experienced by users, and negative feedback associated with the service. For example, despite intensive training of drivers in the use of the lift immediately before the introduction of the accessible vehicles, often the reality was that, on the few occasions, if any, that they were called upon to operate the mechanism, drivers had partially or completely forgotten what to do.
It was concluded that there was no evidence to suggest that the Public Service Vehicles Accessibility Regulations 2000, SI 2000 No. 1970 (as amended) (PSVAR) should be modified with respect to such vehicles and services, although a feature of the trial was that the service was lightly used by wheelchair users, with an average of less than one user every two weeks over the two-year period of monitoring. The vehicles used in the trial were 0.8 metres longer than the coaches previously used on the route. At commencement of the trial the length exceeded current regulations (permission was obtained for these vehicles to operate on this particular route); however, the regulations have now been amended to permit a maximum length of 13.5 metres for buses and coaches. The impact of the extra length of the vehicle was monitored, and it was found that this was only an issue in a small number of specific locations along the trial route; generally, drivers thought that the extra length of the vehicle should not present a problem.
Feedback from operators indicated that, in terms of technical issues, and extra costs in relation to repairs and maintenance of the lift, most problems occurred towards the beginning of the pilot period, and that these were ironed out as the pilot progressed. One minor issue mentioned was that the lift mechanism causes an obstruction when work to the coaches’ gear-box is required, meaning that extra time and effort is required for the removal of panels etc. As with the drivers, management staff interviewed about the pilot tended to be positive about the concept of running accessible vehicles on this route, and expressed disappointment that more disabled passengers had not taken advantage of the facility, but also expressed the opinion that a low-floor design, instead of the use of a wheelchair lift, might ultimately be the best solution for an accessible coach.
The low usage levels also meant that there was insufficient evidence on which to base a judgement on whether running accessible vehicles on Route 403 would cause problems for scheduling. Whilst the figures obtained indicated some delays to services when a wheelchair user was carried, in the majority of cases such delays could be attributed to another cause (such as a road traffic accident on the route), and it is not known how long the process of helping a wheelchair user to board the coach would take if all drivers were well familiarised with the process.