Northern Line extension criticised over lack of accessibility for wheelchair users

By Joe Talora, Local Democracy Reporter

The two new Tube stations on the £1.1 billion Northern Line extension have been described as a “missed opportunity” to offer fully accessible transport after a wheelchair user described difficulties getting around.

The new stations at Nine Elms and Battersea Power Station opened last week to a “party atmosphere” as enthusiasts gathered ahead of the first departure at 5am, with more than 20,000 journeys made on the first day.

But despite being described as “breath-taking”, the new stations have been criticised by disability campaigners over a lack of accessibility.

In a series of widely shared posts on social media, campaigner and blogger Alan Benson described how “dreadful” and “unnecessary” design flaws made it difficult to navigate the stations in a wheelchair.

Mr Benson, who is co-chair of accessibility campaign group Transport for All and deputy chair of transport watchdog London TravelWatch, described how lifts were “way too small” and seemed like a “squeezed-in afterthought”, while signage was confusing.

Speaking to the Local Democracy Reporting Service, Mr Benson said: “I’m a wheelchair user and the underground is not the friendliest of places for me. Like for everybody, it’s the best way of getting around London, because you don’t get stuck on the roads. But most of the stations are old.

“You get used to things not being perfect, and most of the time you’re quite forgiving. But these are two brand-new purpose-built modern stations that were holes in the ground.”

Mr Benson said that he had “never seen so many wheelchair users in an Underground station” during his visit – as well as other passengers with mobility issues – and warned that they are going to be “badly affected by these design decisions”.

He explained that there was not enough room to turn his wheelchair around in the lifts, meaning he had to reverse in or out and, with no mirrors in the lifts, he would be unable to see if there were people behind him when reversing.

Though there is level access boarding at both Nine Elms and Battersea Power Station, Mr Benson said that the step down from the train to the platform at Battersea was “a little too big to do it forwards comfortably”, meaning he had to reverse out.

While he welcomed TfL’s efforts to introduce step-free access at more Tube stations, the campaigner said that the step-free Tube map is not updated regularly enough, making it hard to plan journeys.

He added: “I’m a great supporter of what TfL are doing, and as I said these spaces are great – for 95 per cent of people. But you can’t forget that five per cent. That’s the difference between a good station and a world-class station.”

Since 2016, TfL has undertaken work to bring step-free access to more than a dozen Tube stations, with lifts to be installed at more stations over the next year.

There are currently 86 Tube stations that offer step-free access, while 60 London Overground stations and “most” stations serving TfL Rail have lifts.

All new stations and platforms, including those on the Northern Line extension and on the Elizabeth Line, have been designed to offer step-free access.

Green Party London Assembly Member Sian Berry said: “It’s really disappointing that a brand-new station of this £1.1 billion project has so many failings that disabled people can easily point out. It’s not enough just to declare a station or railway step-free, we must hear the voices of disabled people directly, and involve them in designs from the start to remove the barriers that exclude them.”

Tom Marsland, Policy Manager at disability equality charity Scope, echoed Ms Berry’s words and said that the new Northern Line stations were a “missed opportunity to create a fully accessible station”.

He said: “It will be incredibly disappointing and frustrating for disabled people to find that the brand-new Northern Line stations are not fully accessible.

“Accessibility needs to be a priority and factored in from the beginning. It’s much harder to make something accessible after it’s been constructed.”

Martin Gosling, Northern Line Extension Project Director, said: “We’re sorry to hear of concerns around accessibility at our two new step-free stations, Nine Elms and Battersea Power Station, and are urgently addressing the feedback as making travel easier for Londoners with accessibility needs is one of our top priorities.

“We are making changes to ensure the lift doors stay open for longer and are reviewing signage across the stations. We know how important step-free access is, so installed multiple lifts at Battersea Power Station to ensure there was always one available in the event that a lift is taken out of service.

“We’re sorry we didn’t get things right first time but would like to reassure our customers that we’re taking feedback on board and are working hard to make improvements.”

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