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Last Updated: Thursday, 24 November 2005, 09:58 GMT
Accessible coaches start trials
Geoff Adams-Spink
BBC News website age & disability correspondent

Photo of a wheelchair using woman using the coach's lift
National Express will start using the new coach in December
A new coach capable of carrying wheelchair users is about to go into use in the UK.

The Levante is the result of collaboration between British and Portuguese companies and took two years to develop.

National Express is hoping to put 100 of the coaches into service in the next two years.

The company aims to operate a fully accessible coach network in the UK in time for the Olympics in 2012.

Until recently, travelling by coach has been off limits to many elderly and disabled people with impaired mobility.

Failed attempts

The new Levante has been developed by a number of companies in London and the Midlands, as well as a Portuguese firm, Salvador Caetano.

It has a large door, shallow entrance steps and a flat floor.

The vehicle is also fitted with a wheelchair lift which takes the passenger from the kerbside and hoists them into a space normally occupied by two standard seats.

The passenger can then use the same three-point seatbelt as other customers.

The lift is hidden from view when not in use and the two seats can be put back in.

A previous attempt at making coaches accessible had to be abandoned after complaints by customers.

The older version had a lift in the centre, whereas all passengers board the Levante from the front.

The centre-mounted lift occupied a large amount of space, took a long time to operate and was impossible to use unless bus stops and coach stations were modified.

Other passengers also complained about heat loss through the cavity occupied by the lift and the time taken to get disabled travellers on and off the coach.

The principal drawback of the Levante is that it can only carry one wheelchair-using passenger at a time.

'Very safe'

Ann Bates, a member of the Disabled Persons' Transport Advisory Committee (Diptac) and a wheelchair user herself, has tried the new coach and is favourably impressed.

Photo of a wheelchair user sitting inside a coach
The lift takes up minimal space inside the coach
"It felt very safe, especially compared with the other system," she said.

Mrs Bates admitted that she experienced the Levante under trial conditions and thinks the true test will come when it is in daily use.

National Express will begin trials of the new coach in December, and will introduce 100 of them over the next two years.

The Levante's first route is expected to be between London's Victoria coach station and an airport.

Making the coach network fully accessible to wheelchair users over the next six years will require an investment of 5.5m.

"We wanted the customer to be at the heart of this development and we looked at the product through their eyes," said National Express chief executive, Denis Wormwell.

The lift used in the Levante - made by West Midlands-based Passenger Lift Services - can be used on almost any coach with minimal alteration.

It is designed to carry the majority of wheelchairs provided they do not exceed standard dimensions.

In the case of powered wheelchairs, National Express says it will only be able to carry models fitted with dry cell batteries.

Now that National Express has taken the first steps towards opening up its network to people with mobility impairments, it will have to update its practices to catch up with the progress already made by rail companies.

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