CP was a pioneer and is on the right track

Lieutenant-Colonel António Neves, CP's Ombudsman for Passengers with Specific Needs for 19 years.

One sunny morning at Cascais Station in Lisbon we meet António Neves, a Lieutenant Colonel who has been CP's Ombudsman for Passengers with Specific Needs for the last 19 years.

Accompanied by one of his daughters, he welcomes us with a smile. And it is with pride and satisfaction that he talks about the work he has done in the almost two decades he has helped our company.

In CP, explains the 74-year-old, he always found a pioneering institution with a desire to find solutions. And he believes that the Consultative Council for Passengers with Specific Needs was "a very successful endeavour".

"I recognise that a great deal of effort has been made by CP's staff and managers. A lot has been done in the area of preparing and adapting trains and carriages. In this respect, CP has played a very important and responsible role," António Neves said.

"I'm satisfied and I'm happy to have been able to collaborate and contribute my work in this area. And I think it's recognised by everyone, both customers and CP, that things are going well," he added.

Who is Lieutenant Colonel António Neves?

I was born in Porto, in Leça da Palmeira, and when I was a kid, I would have been six, I went to Angola with my parents and brothers. We lived there until 1975, when we returned to Portugal.

In Angola, I made my way through life as a teenager and student. Then, when the time came, I did my military service. I was in the Commandos and, in July 1972, I had a serious accident, a mine explosion. I was blinded and lost two limbs.

I was evacuated to hospital in Lisbon, I was there for a year and then I returned to Angola, by my own decision. I chose to continue my active service.

I followed my military career, got married, had children, a normal life. Academically, I continued my studies. Before the accident, I was studying electrotechnical engineering and machinery. In my new situation, that was no longer viable. I changed my horizons, turned to the humanities and did a degree in European Studies and almost completed another in History.

After leaving hospital, I was also involved in organisations, as the issue of disability has become a preoccupation in my life. My association, the Association of Disabled Members of the Armed Forces, was created immediately after the 25 April Revolution. At that time, young soldiers in their early 20s had the strength and fighting spirit to move forward and promote rehabilitation and social reintegration. I was always involved in these areas and I was also involved in sport.

Meanwhile, at the end of 2004, I was contacted by CP and invited to take on the role of, at the time, of Ombudsman for Passengers with Specific Needs.

Do you think the creation of this figure was an important step for CP?

CP is a pioneer in this area. As a major public transport company, it was, I believe, the first company to be concerned with this part of social responsibility. Creating the figure of the Ombudsman was very important and interesting.

If it were today, would you accept the invitation to be ombudsman again?

Yes, of course. I've always been totally willing to take on projects linked to disability issues, in every sense.

It's been many years and I'm very pleased and proud to have collaborated with and met some fantastic people. But I'm 74 and it's time to give way to others, although I'm still willing to collaborate. I'm just a click away on my mobile phone!

What is your assessment of these 19 years as an ombudsman?

It's a very positive assessment. Of course, things haven't always been easy over the years.

I've had the pleasure of getting to know several people from CP, from their staff and technicians, and I've felt that there's a spirit of trying to find solutions that serve the interests of both parties.

I think the situation within CP has been handled very well. Sometimes we forget, when we point out difficulties, that when CP and other companies were created almost 200 years ago, nobody was concerned about disabled people and passengers with special needs. Next, we're dealing with a sector in which interventions aren't easy either. It's not easy to replace a train, for example.

There has to be understanding on both sides and I think that, on CP's part, there has been a great effort on the part of its staff to find solutions to certain points relating to accessibility to the train. I think there has also been a good contribution from disability associations, because over the years they have participated, often actively, putting forward suggestions and ideas that the company has taken on board.

Accessibility to trains is everyone's right and it has to be the company's concern to prepare, adapt, transform trains and, when it buys new trains, that they are within the parameters, all of which is currently regulated internationally. But we have to realise that there are real difficulties that cannot be overcome. For example, the Alfa Pendular has its own carriage perfectly adapted to carry people with reduced mobility, it has a lift and the necessary means to secure wheelchairs, but it only has space for two wheelchairs per journey. If a group of 10 or 20 people in wheelchairs turn up, they can't go at the same time, even though they have the right to take the train. There has to be some common sense on both sides.

And I think this has been achieved because the rate of complaints is very low.

Do you think that this reduction in complaints is the result of the work that has been done?

Yes, I think so. Both in these Advisory Council meetings and in other forums, with the associations representing the majority of disabled people at national level, there is this perfect understanding and spirit of collaboration. It's always possible, within the Consultative Council, to point out difficulties or make suggestions. I think this body has been a very successful endeavour.

And one thing that has been done is that whenever CP's technical services do any transformation or adaptation to a train or carriage, they invite people linked to those associations to come and test that solution. There has been this partnership and I believe that this is very important.

For my part, I'm satisfied and I'm happy to have been able to collaborate and contribute my work in this area. And I think it's recognised by everyone, both customers and CP, that things are going well.

What would you say have been the main achievements over these 19 years in terms of improvements for customers?

From a technical point of view, there have been improvements that seem small but are very important. We're talking about accessibility, ramps... The big difficulty is that there's no homogeneity in the equipment. The trains are all different and so are the stations. It becomes extremely difficult to standardise equipment that serves all trains and stations. Even so, a lot has been achieved and achieved well.

But the problems aren't just on the trains, they're at the station and on the pavement, with all the architectural barriers that make it difficult to get from the road to the carriage. We've made a big effort to bring representatives of the local authorities onto this Council, because the local authorities also have a role to play. It takes a combination of factors to solve the problem.

CP has also created a programme within its services, SIM - Integrated Mobility Service for Customers with Specific Needs, which has been improved and is an excellent programme. The time it takes to ask CP for help started out at 48 hours and is now six hours, which is great. Anyone with a disability who wants to travel by train can have this service, to facilitate access conditions.

What still needs to be done to make trains more accessible to everyone?

I think the big effort, but it can't be done overnight, and I understand that, has to be in modernising the equipment.

If we're on the train here in Cascais and the train doesn't have an audible indication because the system has broken down, that's a big handicap for anyone going there, because there's no point in the screen showing that the next station is Carcavelos if I'm blind and I can't read it. Just as the audio warning may not be necessary for someone who is deaf.

The government and CP recognise that the railway network is very old. And so, for me, the big effort has to be made to replace the equipment with new equipment that is already prepared to deal with these difficulties. Not just trains, but, for example, the automation of ticket vending machines.

There's also another area in which I believe it's essential to invest, which is in human resources. CP employees need to have specific training to alert them to good practices in relation to customers with specific needs. This is very important. A few years ago, I had the opportunity to take part in a training campaign for nearly 200 employees, here and in Porto. But this is something that has to be repeated.

How do you rate CP's efforts to create conditions for customers with special needs?

Very good. I recognise that a great deal of effort has been made by CP's technicians and managers. A lot has been done in the area of preparing and adapting trains and carriages.

In this respect, CP has played a very important and responsible role. But there are still barriers to overcome.

I think that the creation of the figure of the Counsellor and the Advisory Council were very important goals and that they contribute a lot to the universe of citizens with special needs. And you don't have to have a disability, any elderly person who doesn't have the agility to climb into a carriage is a person who needs special attention. Anyone who breaks a leg and walks with crutches is a customer with special needs.

CP is on the right track and anything it can do is always good.