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Life On The Buses | Bolton's £48m Interchange Overhaul | Access + Inclusion

[Thumbnail Image of new Bolton Interchange with blog title and recognisable disability symbols]
[Thumbnail Image of new Bolton Interchange with blog title and recognisable disability symbols] 

It's been 5 years since Bolton Council put out to its residents that the town centre and its outdated transport interchange was getting a long overdue make-over. Long out shined by partner town Bury's introduction of The Rock, which was drawing more people than ever to the small town centre, already recognised by having one of Britain's best markets. It's no wonder Bolton Council had to think BIG to get more shoppers influxing it's way again. Many a resident will tell you in recent years Bolton has been somewhat of a ghost town. That is until now!

The Towns New Attractions

[IMAGE: The Vaults, popular restaurants now in the heart of Bolton in an "underground" themed environment, located beneath The Market Place]
[IMAGE: The Vaults, popular restaurants now in the heart of Bolton in an "underground" themed environment, located beneath The Market Place

March 2016 brought the much anticipated opening of the modern underground victorian streets to life, featuring your ever popular restaurants such as PREZZO, Nando's, GBK and the Great Ale (just to name a few). All conveniently placed in the very depths of The Market Place, fittingly known as The Vaults.

As a frequent commuter and visitor to the town centre with the littles, we had been watching The Vaults being constructed brick by brick for months. So naturally when we finally located the right lift (there's since been an additional fitted only a few feet from the Market Place entrance) we were straight down there to check out the access and new places to go for a nice family lunch! No more will I have to trek to Bury for some good ole' Nando's...

The Vaults are easily accessed by 2 spacious lifts, one a few feet inside the shopping centre entrance straight ahead and the other off to your first right where the old NEXT once stood. I prefer going to the latter lift as with Bolton's new found popularity, the main lift is often mobbed. Along with the 2 lifts, the underground victorian themed streets are very wheelchair friendly, no fixed seats other than the odd booths in the restaurants themselves. Well marked signs that include a disabled toilet which is of average size with standard grab rails. No "Changing Places," but will do if you can transfer. Due to the theme of the Vaults, the lighting is dim to fit in with victorian cobbled streets on an evening. Unfortunately that means that it doesn't really cater for the visually impaired. My eldest daughter Abbigail is nearly 5 and registered Partially Sighted. Her type of visual impairment causes night blindness (little or no usable vision in dimly lit environments), so naturally when we first visited The Vaults, she was frightened. She does rely on my guidance more and if we have lunch down there, I have to make sure we are seated at a table nearer the restaurants entrance that will be brightened from the "streets," as going inside the actual restaurants is even darker. Don't get me wrong, aesthetically it looks LOVELY but unfortunately people with some usable vision left will struggle with the lack of adequate lighting.

[IMAGE: Dimly lit, jungle themed indoor play centre Amazonia, Bolton]
[IMAGE: Dimly lit, jungle themed indoor play centre Amazonia, Bolton] 

On another note, they've also incorporated a HUGE jungle themed soft play/indoor playground with a mechanical rideable train called Amazonia, which is every 6 month old to 12 year old child's dream! Set up with jungle themed mini golf for the older kids too. Of course due to spotting the themed signs a mile off, my girls were soon bugging to go check it out. I have to admit I did stress over with how busy it was and how much access I normally DON'T have to interact with my girls in a soft play type setting, wondered how we'd cope in here. Luckily Abbie is able to navigate the over 4s area without assistance and there's plenty of room for me, a wheelchair user to roam around the fenced in play areas to keep an eye on her or to flag her down if need be. The under 3s area is literally right across from the main play area and I can get my wheelchair right along side it, with no fencing in the way so I can pull Ava in and out without straining. That's a big bonus as most soft-plays are not wheelchair mum friendly. It is dimly lit in keeping with the jungle theme in here as well and can get very noisy (as do most play centres), so I'd definitely recommend that those hard of hearing or visually impaired keep this in mind before venturing in. Needless to say, Amazonia is a big hit for my little ones and is always their top pick to go if they've been good and finances permitting.

The Changing Transport Interchange

[IMAGE: The old Bolton Bus Station]
[IMAGE: The old Bolton Bus Station] 

It's out with the old and in with the new. There wasn't much wrong with the old bus station from an access point of view to be honest. It was all very open, spacious with dropped (though not low enough some of them) tactile kerbs. If you were heading to the main shopping bit, it was quite a trek for the able-bodied shoppers from the bus station itself. It had the Step-Hear™ system installed for the blind/visually impaired and an information point that was always manned. The thought process was definitely just to upgrade the look, modernise and enclose the station from harsh British weather and put it closer to the main shopping areas.

First Impressions

[IMAGE: The new Bolton Bus Station, floor to ceiling windows in a much larger, modern structure]
[IMAGE: The new Bolton Bus Station, floor to ceiling windows in a much larger, modern structure] 

We first used the new bus station when the old one became redundant and cornered off to be turned into another car park last week. I couldn't help but feeling it resembled Manchester Airport, what with its floor-to-ceiling windows throughout, ramps inside leading up and down to various series of alphabetical stands. A Greg's, news agents, coffee shop and security guards a plenty, it really felt like we were in the city.

Accessibility

[IMAGE: Me in my powerchair waiting for my bus home inside the new modern station]
[IMAGE: Me in my powerchair waiting for my bus home inside the new modern station] 

I was glad to see all around the bus station the previous dropped kerbs have been smoothed out and are a lot better. The station has all automatic doors, with easily found ramps up/down to each alphabetical series of bus stands heading in different directions. The ramps are nice and shallow. The doors at each stand stay firmly closed until the bus arrives to keep the cold air out which will make such a big difference to those with chronic illness where they can easily become ill from waiting in freezing temperatures for transport. All buses are lined up diagonally to the stands with their own bit of pavement (just the same as at the Trafford Centre) so no more having to ask the driver to scoot the bus so the poles at the stands don't block the ramp access to the bus. Big bonus as we all know some drivers have a moan about having to get the ramp out period, never mind scoot the bus away from a barrier too! Oh the inconvenience.. The bus station is now connected to Bolton train station by enclosed elevated bridges, just like the airports and Deansgate etc which is brilliant.

Even in just a week I've seen a big improvement in bus drivers attitudes. I've been helped and spoken to with more humanity than usual. Perhaps they've had some recent disability training? One can hope, let's just hope this new attitude sticks!

Unfortunately as much as I've been praising the wheelchair access throughout, I've seen and heard first hand from visually impaired residents that the station has NOT yet been fitted with the essential Step-Hear™ system that is activated by a keyfob a blind/VI individual carries that tells them where exactly they are and will verbally guide them as they walk through the station. One regular blind commuter Toni Forrest says she does not feel safe navigating the new station on her own without the system. It's not clear what the delay is in installing Step-Hear™ but it's evident it's absence is already damaging the independence of VI commuters. Lastly the electronic visual time tables that have been installed are in what appears smaller than standard font size, making it next to impossible to read for myself (and I'm only short sighted mind you..) so I can only imagine the anxiety and frustration this will cause somebody who is not completely blind and is trying to get around independently with the little usable vision they may have.

Conclusion

Overall the new features in the town centre and the big Interchange revamp look promising, it is to be expected that things may slip through the net. As a whole the renovations in Bolton have been planned for many years, and they have done a great job in a lot of respects. Due to their focus being on getting the station functioning as it should with your average commuters, it is upto us to speak up about things they've forgotten such as the Step-Hear™ system. I'll be calling Tfgm to see what is going on with this essential system, along with many blind/VI Boltonians who rely on it to be independent out in the community. It'd be wrong to assume Bolton Council have forgotten, who knows...there might of been a technical issue and by the time this post goes up it'll be fixed! All we can do is chase it up and watch this space...

I hope you've found this blog helpful and think about coming to visit Bolton and what it now has to offer in competition with other towns 👍

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