Thursday, 15 August 2019

My Experience of Train Travel with a Disability

I can’t remember the last time I made a journey by train and didn’t have some sort of accessibility problem. It’s happened so much now that I just can’t ever imagine being able to take a train somewhere on my own. With every journey I make, I live in constant anxiety about what’s going to go wrong next. And it really shouldn’t be like this for anyone. Train travel should be accessible to all. 

One of my biggest bugbears about taking a train in the UK as a disabled person is that there is very little opportunity to be spontaneous. As an able person you can pretty much turn up to any station without prior warning, buy a ticket and hop on a train to anywhere you fancy. But if you’re going to need assistance getting on and off the train, you’re expected to have made arrangements at least 48 hours beforehand. OK, so most train companies say that they ‘recommend’ you book assistance before you travel, but in reality, you often get a lot of stick if you don’t follow that recommendation. 

I travel up to London quite a lot for medical appointments, which means needing to use both mainline and London Underground/Overground services. Medical appointments in themselves will often create higher levels of anxiety, so add into that needing to travel long distances and you’re already starting the day feeling more vulnerable than usual. For the majority of my outward journeys, I tend to ring up ahead of the day and let the train company know that I will need a ramp to get on and off the train. That’s usually the easy part. I give them my details, tell them I’m in a wheelchair and let them know which trains I am planning to use to get to my destination. 

So far so good, right? Well, apart from the fact that this then ties me down to having to catch an exact train, as well as having to make sure I am quick enough to make any connections, it wouldn’t be so bad if it actually worked! But, ninety nine per cent of the time, I will arrive at my local station, wait patiently on the platform for my train to arrive and then when it does, no one will have any knowledge of me needing assistance. Sometimes the guard will spot me on the platform, ask if I’ve booked assistance and when I say that I have, will say that they hadn’t been told. But at least then, they will usually find a ramp and get me on the train. But a lot of the time, the person I’m travelling with (or fellow passengers) end up running up and down the platform trying to find the guard before the doors close and the train leaves the station. So I end up wondering – is there actually any point in booking assistance in the first place?!

My experience when I’ve supposedly booked assistance isn’t particularly dissimilar to my journey home again when I haven’t. It’s impossible to book assistance in advance for my train home from hospital (or any other trip to be honest!) If it’s a hospital appointment, I have no idea whether I’ll be seen on time, how long I will end up waiting, how long my appointment will last and whether I will need to do anything else after that appointment. And if it’s not a trip for a medical appointment (like, on the odd occasion, I do actually like to try and do something fun!) then I don’t really want to feel like I’m constantly working to a time limit – it just adds constant pressure to my day and takes away any enjoyment. So I don’t ring 48 hours in advance to book assistance for a particular train. 

And like my journey out, I reach the station and am usually asked by station staff whether I’ve booked assistance. So many times, when I answer ‘no’ to this question, I am made to feel like I’ve done something wrong and that I’m an inconvenience. Even when I give my reasons for not booking (which I really shouldn’t have to do) I’m still told that I really should have booked if I wanted help. I’ve effectively been ‘told off’ by station staff before for not doing things ‘properly’ – way to make a disabled person feel completely humiliated! I just can’t comprehend why train companies can’t understand that disabled people just want to be able to travel in the same way as everybody else! How would they cope if someone told them that they had to plan the exact trains they needed to get every single time they needed to go out somewhere? 

One of my worst train experiences happened fairly recently after a hospital appointment in London. I came back to the first station of my journey to find absolutely no station staff anywhere. The ticket barriers were up, the ticket office was closed and there was nobody on the platform. Sitting in my chair on the platform, I hoped that the train would have a guard who could at least help me. But when it turned up, there was no guard on this particular train (and this is one of the reasons why I completely support the need for guards on trains!) Other passengers got on and off, and all I could do was sit by the door, hoping that someone might notice that I was stuck, while my Dad ran up and down the platform trying to find someone. 

Another passenger noticed that I couldn’t get on and asked if there was anything she could do. I use an electric wheelchair that weighs around 100kg, so short of learning how to levitate there’s unfortunately not a lot anyone can help with. She was absolutely lovely though and ended up running down to the driver to tell him that I needed to get on. This situation began to draw the attention of other passengers, who were either staring at me, or watching this lady attempt to talk to the driver. There was quite a commotion happening as we watched the driver throwing his hands in the air at this lady. As she walked back down the platform towards me, she told us that the driver had simply shouted at her for causing a problem and told her to go away. So, she then decided to simply stand in the doorway so the doors couldn’t close and therefore the train couldn’t leave. The driver eventually had to come down himself and get the ramp for me, much to his protests and anger. I understand it wasn’t really his job, but again, it’s not nice to be on the receiving end of someone’s anger for something I can’t do anything about!

Whilst I massively appreciate the passenger standing up for me (I would probably still be stuck on the platform if it wasn’t for her!) it is hugely embarrassing to have everyone’s eyes on you because you simply can’t access public transport. It didn’t help that the train driver then made an announcement to the whole train that the reason for the delay was that there were no platform staff to help me! I just wanted the ground to open up and swallow me. So whilst of course I appreciate other passengers looking out for me and standing up for my rights, I would much rather that they didn’t have to at all. I don’t want to make a big scene when I use public transport. I just want to get on and off like everyone else does! On this occasion, I was so close to crying because I felt completely humiliated and embarrassed about the whole situation. This isn’t accessibility or equality!

There are so many other things that have gone wrong when I’ve travelled by train in my wheelchair. Whether it’s lifts not working (and being shipped off on different trains all over the place), people using the wheelchair spaces for luggage and refusing to move, not being able to get off a train and ending up stuck going to completely the wrong place or not being able to access the toilets on a train journey and therefore having an accident. 

Yes, there are staff that try their best to make train travel accessible to those with disabilities and I will be forever grateful to the ones that do. But I think this problem goes higher than individual station/train staff. Why, in 2019, are our railways still so inaccessible to people with disabilities? I know so many people who simply don’t or can’t travel because the accessibility just isn’t good enough. People, who could, if disabled access was given more thought, actually go out on their own, be independent or leave their town for the first time in years. But instead, they end up trapped in a small bubble – unable to access medical appointments, unable to go to work and unable to go out and have fun. Simply because disabled access doesn’t seem to be a priority. 

I want to be spontaneous. I want to be able to get on a train without drawing unnecessary attention. I don’t want to arrive at a station and feel absolutely terrified that I’m going to be told off, left on a platform or end up trapped on a train because there’s no way off. I want to be able to access the world, to enjoy myself, to get to my medical appointments on time. And I don’t think that that’s too much to ask.

If you’re disabled, what are your experiences of travelling by train? And if you’re not disabled, what are your thoughts on disabled access on trains?

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