A coach company is ignoring access laws by refusing to allow wheelchair-users to travel on its services on the same day they buy tickets, while exposing its drivers to possible criminal charges.
Transport laws state that any company that has already introduced accessible coaches – even though this is not obligatory until 2020 – must ensure that those vehicles provide a space for wheelchair-users to travel in their wheelchairs.
Although the coach company National Express does have such spaces on nearly all its vehicles, they are usually covered by temporary seats, and it demands at least 24 hours’ notice to remove them and so clear the space if a wheelchair-user wishes to travel in their wheelchair.
But accessible transport campaigner Doug Paulley (pictured) has demonstrated that National Express is breaching the law by failing to ensure those spaces can be accessed easily and refusing to allow wheelchair-users to “turn up and go” on its services.
He is due to discuss the issue with the managing director of National Express, Chris Hardy.
Paulley’s concerns about the way the company dealt with wheelchair-users who wish to travel spontaneously were first confirmed last August.
He bought a ticket from Bradford to Leeds on a coach that was leaving within half an hour, but when he reached the coach he was told he should have given 24 hours’ notice and would not be allowed to board as it would take too long to remove the temporary seating.
Any coaches that have been adapted to be compliant with Public Service Vehicle Accessibility Regulations – as National Express’s have – must provide a wheelchair space and make that space available to wheelchair-users.
Separate laws state that a coach driver is committing a criminal offence* if he or she does not allow a wheelchair-user to access that space, if it is not occupied by another disabled passenger and the coach is not full.
Such spaces are legally defined as unoccupied even if they are covered by temporary seating.
After realising in February that the coach driver could have been committing a criminal offence, Paulley contacted West Yorkshire Police, which initially refused to treat the incident as a crime.
But after he lodged a complaint, the force has now admitted its mistake and has promised to spread awareness of the criminal offence to its customer contact centre, district control rooms, public counters in police stations and its crime management unit.
The force has also categorised last August’s incident as a disability hate crime, although it will take no further action against the driver.
Paulley said: “Coach operators’ choice to keep seats installed in the wheelchair space puts drivers in an impossible situation because they are required to remove the seats when a wheelchair-user wishes to travel and can be fined and get points on their license for refusing to do so.
“The answer is to keep seats uninstalled unless and until all the other seats on the coach are occupied, and also to choose coaches that have seats that are as easy to install and remove as possible. But National Express doesn’t do that, sadly.”
A West Yorkshire Police spokesman confirmed that the force had received a complaint, but he said it could not comment on it for data protection reasons, although he said Paulley was free to share the contents of the complaint’s resolution with Disability News Service.
National Express has so far refused to say if it accepts that its driver was committing a criminal offence, and whether it will change the way it runs its services to avoid putting other drivers at such risk in the future.
But a National Express spokeswoman said in a statement: “We have apologised to Mr Paulley and his fellow passengers for their recent experience with us.
“Our aim is to ensure everyone can make use of our services and we will always listen to feedback to help us achieve this.
“We welcome Mr Paulley’s input and contacted him last month to invite him to meet with us to discuss the important matters he has raised.
“We were the first company in the UK to introduce wheelchair lifts to our coaches over 10 years ago.
“Our fleet of 550 vehicles is currently over 99 per cent accessible to passengers with reduced mobility and will be 100 per cent accessible in advance of the legislative requirement in 2020.”
*This is a breach of the Public Service Vehicles (Conduct of Drivers, Inspectors, Conductors and Passengers) (Amendment) Regulations 2002, and contravention of this regulation is an offence under the Public Passenger Vehicles Act 1981