With a fleet that encompasses everything from eight- to 87-seaters, family-owned business Salmond’s Coaches is proud of the emphasis that it lays on ease of access to its fleet by people with disabilities.
Lift and ramp manufacturers are responding to the need for smarter, and in some cases, heavier-duty systems. Steve Banner reports.
Last year saw the Fauldhouse, West Lothian coach hire specialist opt to have several of its vehicles fitted with wheelchair lifts sourced from Faiveley Vapor Ricon. It has not regretted the move says operations manager Stacey Salmond.
“It is important to us that our vehicles are able to support the growing number of wheelchair users in our region,” she explains. Based on the fringes of rural Scotland, the company can provide coaches for everything from holiday excursions and weddings to school trips and golf outings, and is acutely aware that it needs to cater for customers who may face challenges with their personal mobility.
“We want everybody to be able to enjoy the spectacular scenery and everything else that our beautiful region has to offer,” Salmond says. “We are glad to be a pioneer when it comes to offering accessible coach travel in Scotland.”
The lifts the operator chose were from the manufacturer’s S Series, which encompasses fully-automatic split-platform models. “Ninety-nine per cent of the lifts we offer are internally mounted and usually have split platforms so that the door they are next to can be used as an emergency exit,” says Faiveley Vapor Ricon sales manager Michael Dickinson.
The manufacturer has recently expanded its range with the launch of the S Series-derived Slide-away, which is designed to fold away concertina-style at the press of a button. It allows the lift to clear the vehicle’s doorway by sliding up and out of the way or to one side so that it can be stowed behind a seat.
An ageing population – around 18.2 per cent of people in the UK are aged 65 or older according to the latest figures from the Office for National Statistics – plus the requirements of the Equality Act 2010 are helping to underpin the demand for wheelchair lifts and ramps. “We got off to a great start this year, with two major orders,” says Dickinson.
In this context it is worth noting that all buses designed to carry over 22 passengers on local and scheduled routes must comply with the Public Service Vehicles Accessibility Regulations. Coaches will be required to meet them from 1 January 2020.
They mean that vehicles must be fitted with equipment that makes it easy for people with disabilities to access them.
The Public Service Vehicles (Conduct of Drivers, Inspectors, Conductors and Passengers) Regulations 1990 oblige drivers to deploy a ramp or lift when it is required by a wheelchair user to board or alight a vehicle and provide the user with assistance if requested. They are also obliged to provide travellers with disabilities who do not need to use a wheelchair with help in boarding and alighting if they require it.
Drivers should also offer to provide wheelchair users with assistance in using wheelchair restraint systems where fitted should they need it.
There is of course little point in helping somebody in a wheelchair board a bus if the wheelchair space is already occupied by a baby buggy.
In January 2017 the Supreme Court ruled that drivers must do more than simply request passengers to vacate such spaces when they are required by a wheelchair user. It is a decision which has provoked considerable debate over what a driver can do in practice if he or she tells whoever is occupying the space that they must leave it, and the individual concerned refuses to budge.
The Research Institute for Disabled Consumers (RIDC) makes the point that the Supreme Court’s decision also said that: “A passenger who is ‘readily and reasonably’ able to move from a wheelchair space commits an offence … if his [sic] refusal prevents a wheelchair user from being allowed to board the bus.”
“Not moving out of the wheelchair space is now anti-social behaviour,” says Alan Benson, chair of disabled rights charity Transport for All. “That changes the whole approach to the way in which disabled people can travel and participate in society.”
“Unless the circumstances are really exceptional, the driver must encourage people to move,” says disability rights campaigner, Doug Paulley, whose determination to ensure that wheelchair users wanting to use buses received fair treatment led to the Supreme Court ruling.
Signage reminding travellers of what the law says could therefore make sense and so could training for drivers – possibly under the auspices of the Certificate of Professional Competence – to help them deal with a potentially very awkward situation.
There are other measures that operators can consider implementing, including providing a separate space for baby buggies. Go-Ahead subsidiary Brighton & Hove has gone a little further, and come up with a Wheelchair Taxi Guarantee scheme.
If a wheelchair user is unable to board one of its buses for any reason then the driver will alert the control room so that an accessible taxi can be summoned. It will take the user to his or her destination free-of-charge, with Brighton & Hove picking up the bill.
In a bid to improve disability awareness throughout the passenger transport industry, the Department for Transport is busy introducing the Inclusive Transport Accreditation Scheme. The aim is to recognise operators that take positive action to improve the experiences of travellers with disabilities.
Such action might include ensuring that all of the company’s staff receive disability awareness training and making assistance cards available to disabled passengers that they can use as they board a bus. Such cards can be produced to let the driver know that they may need help.
In the meantime wheelchairs are getting bigger and heavier and ramp and lift manufacturers are having to respond accordingly, says Dickinson. “We’re increasingly finding that a 500kg SWL – Safe Working Load – is the norm,” he reports.
His company offers lifts at both 500kg SWL and 350kg SWL. The former is only slightly heavier than the latter – “we’re probably talking about no more than 5kg to 10kg,” he says – despite its greater capacity so it makes sense to specify it.
Turning to wheelchair ramps, everything Faiveley Vapor Ricon offers at present is manually-operated, says Dickinson. “However, we’ve developed a powered version of one of our manual ramps, and we’ve got it on trial with an operator in Oxford,” he says.
It is by no means the only ramp supplier active in the UK. Carwood BDS markets manual ramps, Compak does too along with powered ramps and boarding bridges while Mobility Networks offers lifts, ramps, flooring, seats and a variety of related products.
So far as lifts are concerned Mobility Networks best-known product remains the cassette-type GNX Access. Mounted in the front entrance of a coach, with a 825mm x 1740mm platform, and able to lift a wheelchair to a height of almost 1.5m, it allows wheelchair users to access the vehicle’s main passenger saloon.
With a 300kg SWL, the lift itself weighs 285kg.
Mobility Networks also produces cassette lifts that can be mounted in the luggage compartment, including the Access Mega. It can hoist wheelchairs up to a height of 1.7m and has a 400kg SWL, with 500kg SWL offered as an option.
Features include solid handrails and measures have been taken to prevent it from rattling while the coach is in motion; something that can be a real annoyance to both drivers and passengers.
Mobility Networks has developed a new wheelchair lift for minibuses under the accessECO banner which is 12kg lighter than similar models in its range. A high-efficiency brushless motor cuts power consumption by up to 80 per cent, says the company.
The new lift makes extensive use of aluminium as well as steel, with aluminium employed to construct the cassette box. What Mobility Networks describes as sustainable plastics are used too.
Platform sizes range from 825mm x 1390mm to 925mm x 1510mm. Cassette box sizes extend from 1150mm x 1000mm x 175mm to 1380mm x 1100mm x 175mm.
Ramps are more sophisticated products than one might suppose. The RE1 electric ramp made by Masats, for example, has a sensitive rubberised front edge which ensures that the ramp moves back automatically if it detects an obstacle, thereby minimising the risk of injury.
If it detects a weight heavier than 15kg then RE1 will not move, ensuring that people who step onto it are not suddenly thrown off.
Returning to lifts, there is always the risk that either the wheelchair and its occupant or an attendant will accidentally tumble off the platform while it is raised. In response, Koller Engineering has developed a safety barrier under the FALL STOP banner which can be clipped into place.
It is light in weight, but has been pull-tested to 850kg without failure, says Koller.
Says managing director Dean Koller: “We felt it was extremely important to provide a barrier to stop any accidents happening. No accessible vehicle should be without a product like this.”
Operators have to cope with mobility scooters as well as wheelchairs. RIDC points out that the Confederation of Passenger Transport has developed a scooter permit scheme which is now being employed by over 20 bus companies.
Scooter users have to be assessed by the bus company to ensure they can drive onto a vehicle safely before they are granted a permit. Only Class 2 scooters qualify.
One suspects that most fleets will end up adopting the scheme thanks to an expanding population of senior citizens who are determined not to end up stuck at home and isolated; and are well aware of their rights.