Guide dog users at London's King's Cross station have more reason than most to want the second phase of King's Cross reconstruction to go ahead. Bernadette Redfern reports.
With the Royal Institute for the Blind's headquarters just opposite the exit - far more visually impaired passengers and their guide dogs pass through King's Cross station every day than the average London Underground station. Among the number of regular visitors are 12 RNIB staff.
'Until now we have had a great relationship with London Underground and Transport for London, ' says RNIB campaigns officer Nicholas Russell. 'But recently, relationships have become strained.'
The problem started last November when the sole set of stairs leading from the main station entrance on Euston Road down to the deep underground tube lines was closed as part of station redevelopment plans to replace them with escalators and lifts to deep tube lines.
Two escalators either side of the staircase are open and in use, which is fine for most of the travelling public. But London Underground bans dogs from escalators in case their paws get caught in the moving parts.
'I would probably be allowed to carry mine, but he's much too heavy, ' says RNIB legal adviser and guide dog user Jane Vernon, who describes the devastating effect of the closure.
'One morning in late November, I arrived at King's Cross on the Piccadilly line and walked through to the stairs, which are by the Victoria line, to find they had been closed off, ' says Vernon.
'There was a hand-written note on the barriers saying that the stairs were closed but that is obviously no use to me whatsoever.'
Transport for London has said that during off-peak hours staff will close down the escalator, creating a temporary staircase.
However, when Vernon finally found a member of staff, she was told that this would not be possible and she should use the staircase at the Thameslink exit. This is some distance away, requiring a long walk through a labyrinth of tunnels. Above ground there are several major roads between Thameslink and the RNIB headquarters.
The situation is unlikely to be resolved quickly. Construction of a new northern ticket hall, is now looking uncertain as the department has called in the project for a review (see News and NCE 5 February).
To appreciate the difficulty that guide dog users experience, NCE accompanied Vernon at King's Cross on her journey to the office last week.
Arriving at King's Cross at 2.30pm, Vernon waited around hoping to locate a member of staff to stop the escalator so she could ascend to the exit.
After 15 minutes she gave up and set off on the alternative route. First she negotiated stairs down to the Piccadilly line. At one point she had to rein in her guide dog who tried to go the wrong way.
Vernon then had to weave her way through the tunnels towards the Thameslink station. After 10 minutes she reached the exit and once up the stairs emerged on Pentonville Road.
TfL has also suggested a member of staff would accompany guide dog users across the perilous roads, in an area renowned for crime, but there was no-one to hand. Vernon negotiated three sets of traffic lights alone.
As an organisation, the RNIB is pragmatic about the situation and focuses on trying to resolve the issue rather than on recriminations over the lack of warning about the staircase's removal.
Nevertheless, Bob Kiley, commissioner of Transport for London was apologetic about the situation.
'There ought to have been much more co-ordination between all the parties involved in redeveloping King's Cross station when the decision to remove the fixed staircase was made. We have since apologised to RNIB over this matter.'
Kiley has also put his name to a letter from RNIB and the Guide Dog Association to secretary of state for transport Alasdair Darling.
This demands that the northern ticket hall is given the go ahead in order to establish step free access to deep level platforms as quickly as possible.
If TfL fails to find a solution, it could find itself in court. Next October, the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 is to be extended to infrastructure and physical features of public areas.
'TfL will have a legal duty to make reasonable adjustments to its infrastructure to allow guide dogs users to get around, ' says Vernon.
'If it fails to do so I shall bring claims against them.'
As the RNIB's legal officer, she knows the law and she is not afraid to use it.