MP WRITES: A sound idea for buses

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Last week I spoke in the House of Commons on access to public transport for disabled people.

As I’ve said before, I don’t think the system in which public transport is organised is fit for purpose, nor benefits passengers in the town.

A bus service in Hartlepool should be fantastic – a compact, mostly urbanised area and relatively low car ownership should help to provide a cheap, reliable and co-ordinated bus service in the town.

However, I don’t think we have that. Indeed, as I said in last week’s debate in Parliament, we don’t have a public transport service – not really.

We have a private bus service dominated by one specific company. A lack of real regulation has meant that the more profitable services can be cherry picked, while the socially important routes that keep people connected and allow them to be mobile, can be dropped, often very quickly.

That is why Stagecoach are able to say that they have “sector leading” profit margins of 17.1 per cent in its UK bus operations and provide greater dividends to shareholders while cutting services in Hartlepool.

I have mentioned bus services in general before and will no doubt do so again.

However, the specific purpose of last week’s debate in Parliament was to discuss access to public transport for disabled people.

I mentioned in the debate blind and partially sighted people, largely because a number of people in Hartlepool had contacted me on the issue and I wanted to express their views in Parliament.

It must be frightening to be blind or partially sighted and try to get around the town.

Guide Dogs for the Blind have offered me the opportunity to walk around the centre of Hartlepool blindfolded, to get some sort of feeling as to what blind people have to put up with.

I’m keen to do this as I want to see whether a town I have lived in all my life would feel quite so familiar if I wasn’t blessed with the power of sight.

For visually impaired people, where things might seem literally unclear, the propsect of using a bus, without proper information that is suitable for them, would be generally frightening.

Lots of ideas were put forward in the debate. Some MPs suggested that bus drivers should make a point of identifying when a blind or partially sighted person needs to be informed that this is their stop.

I should imagine that most bus drivers try to do this anyway, but they are also tasked with actually driving the bus in a safe and considered manner.

The ending of conductors on buses some years ago means that bus drivers have to take on many additional roles. I’m not sure whether this is wholly practicable.

I suggested in the debate that the development of smartphone technology and use of apps, in which users could be told when a bus is coming to their stop and, once on the bus, where they are and when their desired stop is coming up.

This could be technology that benefits British business and exported around the world. However, I don’t think that suggestion is the magic wand to solve problems for people with visual difficulties and I am conscious that many people don’t have and can’t afford smartphones with apps.

The easiest solution is to ensure that bus companies provide audio-visual announcement equipment on their buses within a period of time, say five years.

I directly asked the Transport Minister in the debate how much this would cost, to be told it works out at about £2,000 per bus in the entire country.

I have to say, that doesn’t seem too excessive for a company to deal with, and I would imagine that investment could be recouped within the lifetime of the bus through greater use of those bus services from more customers with sight problems.

I really don’t see why this can’t be carried out, as this would be in the interests of passengers and provide a better service.