Step-Free: Disability Access on the London Underground

The Paralympic Games of 2012 were supposed to usher in a new era of London-travel-freedom for people with disabilities. 25% of all tube stations would have step-free access by 2010 and this would rise to a third in time for the 2012 Games. At the time there was quite rightly a furore because this promise was not kept. By July 2012, only 65 out of 270 were step-free, far from the target of a third (90). Further than this, there were stories about the inadequacies of access not only to the stations but to and from the trains. Infamously, Tanni Grey-Thompson, Britain’s most decorated athlete, had to drag herself and her wheelchair off a train when no one met her with a ramp.

The media voices have quietened, but how much has changed since 2012? What is the state of London’s transport system now? And what is the best way forward?

2012’s broken promises

2006 saw the promise of a vastly improved Underground network for disabled passengers. “One third of Tube stations” a press release claimed, “will have step-free access by 2013 and [London Underground] will, if possible, accelerate accessibility works ahead of the 2012 Olympics”. Sadly, Livingstone’s schedule didn’t fit into Boris Johnson’s planner. By the time Johnson’s mayorship had begun, Transport for London had said to the charity Disability Now, “In order to have the money to continue with line upgrades, which will result in a 30 per cent capacity increase for all Londoners, some projects unfortunately could not proceed. The total budget for the six schemes that have been stopped was £92m and this funding is simply not available”. This 30% increase was Boris’ election promise, and evidently it was keeping this promise, not accessibility, that was his priority. The change in direction left 65 stations, not 90, with step-free access for the games. The latest figure on the TfL website claims 66 now have such access. An increase of one in a year and a half.

What is Step-Free Access?

Yet even this reduced number must be mitigated. This is because ‘step-free access’ can mean two things. It can refer to access from the street to the station, which applies to these 66 stations. Or it can mean access to the train, pretty important when travelling by train, which applies to a number that is far smaller. 27, by my count. This is the difference between stations with a white insignia, for step-free to the station, and blue, step-free to the train. For many disabled travellers, this difference in colour makes life very difficult. Take Jeff, for example:

I imagine it doesn’t mean too much to Jeff to have the 39 step-free access stations that do not get a wheelchair user on to the train. His station, Kilburn, is listed as step-free on the TfL website. But as we can see, that does him little good. This is the tube map for those who need step-free access onto the train. It is rather lonely. See especially the one station in central London.

Step-Free Tube, courtesy of The Telegraph

Step-Free Tube, courtesy of The Telegraph


So the situation is not a good one. Even the behind schedule numbers are smaller than they seem. However, there is both hope for and evidence of improvement. Testimonies on Channel 4’s No Go Britain investigation suggest things have got better in the last year. ‘Of all the messages we received’, they write, ‘41 per cent were positive – far more than our last trial, when the overwhelming majority of communications were negative’. Further, in the Ten Year Business Plan for London, Boris Johnson claims, ‘The accessibility of London’s transport network will dramatically improve over the next decade, adding significantly more step-free journey options for customers’ and notes that ‘a total of £40 million is being allocated for accessibility improvements across the network’. In the plan, the mayor has published projected maps for 2016 and 2020, which promise access improvements on a vast number of stations.

20162020Note in particular the number of stations with blue badges.


The optimism this brings, however, should be restrained. The new promise of TfL is that ‘installing lifts at some of the busiest Tube stations such as Victoria, Tottenham Court Road, Bond Street and Bank … will double the number of step-free journeys possible on the Tube, from 67 million today to 189 million in 2021/22’. This is harder to visualise than the promise of a third made in 2006 but the ambition is the same. And so is the timescale. It is quite possible that the glorious 2020 map filled with blue step-free access stations is a vision that will not be realised in the next 7 years, especially given that the 7 years from 2006 to 2013 yielded disappointing results.

What  now?

And in the intervening time, it is worth proposing some efforts that look to amelioration. Because seven years is a long time to wait for a train. One of the most promising ventures is Wheels for Wellbeing. This is a charity that has been working since 2007 to provide disabled people with an opportunity to cycle. It offers off-road training sessions as well as the chance to practice on modified bicycles and gives thousands a travel choice that would otherwise not be open to them.

Now sadly, of course, this is not suitable for everyone. Even so, the reach of the programme is wider than you might expect. As well as this, it’s just been given a grant of £10,000 by Johnson which suggests that it may be able to offer its services to an even broader group. This sort of action is exciting for disabled Londoners because it is empowering. It is giving many people the freedom to travel, which is the end goal of the works on the Underground anyway, but freedom to travel that is unrestrained by the shortcomings of the tube.

Better transport, then, does seem to be on its way, even though the time frame may be too ambitious. And for now, it is possible for many disabled people to choose a different, and liberating approach to travel.


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