Flash Says…

Let the train… create the strain?

Posted on: 2011-02-20

The variety of train providers across the UK creates a problem; the services you take for granted on one service may not be offered on another. Knowing what to expect can be difficult, but if you’re a wheelchair user, it’s even more varied and you’re certainly not equal to other passengers. Let’s take a closer look…

John arrives at the station, buys his ticket, picks up a sandwich from M&S and spends a minute pondering coloured ties on a stall. Then he checks the departure screens, and strolls down Platform 2. He identifies coach D, and takes his seat at a table, by the window, ready to watch the world pass by as he eats lunch and works on his laptop. Ah, train travel is so easy.

If John had arrived in a wheelchair, it would be another story. After checking in with the assistance counter, he would be told to stay there, left for ages (unable to go shopping), then just as he was starting to worry that he’d been forgotten, an assistant would walk over, grab the handles of his wheelchair (without asking), push him briskly to the platform, bundle him up a ramp, and leave him in an open space next to the toilet.

John decides to go for a coffee, after all his ticket entitles him to a free drink and snack. Meanwhile, John’s wheelchair using counterpart waits, hoping that a staff member will come through to check tickets, so he can ask them to go to the buffet for him. Until he can access food and drink, he can’t take his painkillers. It’s usually an hour before anyone comes through. John, blissfully unaware, sits down, peels the foil from his milk and adds it to his drink. He inhales happily and relaxes as the world rolls by. What could be more calming than a trip on the train?

This is not just about “John” and his counterpart. I’ve attended various forums and focus groups recently; I know that it’s not just me who has a hellish experience purely because they are disabled.

My needs are simple, and the same on any train. I require a ramp to board, I would like to sit in a wheelchair bay at a table, ideally one with a power point. I need one of the train staff to come by after I’ve boarded, to check I’m ok and see if I need food (e.g. to take medication with). I also request that nobody pushes my wheelchair without asking me first.

The experiences between first and standard class can vary, and also between train companies, so no two trips are the same – I always have to ring ahead to find out what’s on offer.

Wheelchair space on First Great Western
On board with First Great Western – a standard class carriage, so I am next to a power point, aid call button, and accessible toilet.

I regularly travel with First Great Western. They treat you well – as long as you are in standard class! Recently I was told “I’m afraid there’s no space left in standard so we would like to offer you a free upgrade to first class” – for most people these words would be a relief, a chance to have a larger seat in a less crowded carriage for no additional charge. However, I have a concern. The entrance to first class is narrower. My new wheelchair only just meets the measurements – I hope it will squeak through the doors, else I’ll have to get out and take the wheels off in order to get inside!

Also, I won’t be able to show my ticket at the buffet to claim a free drink and snack – because I can’t get to the buffet. But, unlike in standard class, there’s no aid call button. And although every other seat has access to a power socket, frustratingly the wheelchair bay doesn’t. But I need to charge my phone, in order to arrange a lift at my destination. Never mind, I’m in the quiet carriage where phones are forbidden… This doesn’t make sense to me, as a disabled person is likely to need to make arrangement for their onward travel, since they are the least able to walk into town or stroll to a bus stop. Yet First Great Western forces first class disabled travellers to sit in a quiet zone.

Worse still, the only accessible toilet is in standard class. So if I’m “promoted” to First on a long journey, I’ll have to hold on…

Still, at least I know First Great Western will be able to accommodate me. With Southeastern, it’s another story.

Last autumn I visited Hastings with my choir – a 111 minute journey, so it’s as long as London to York, for example. I called in advance to find out about the difference between first and standard – so I could ensure I booked a bay with power socket – but I received a confusing response about “the space”. I didn’t understand, so I said I’d work it out later and buy my ticket on the day.

When I arrived it was explained to me that there was no wheelchair bay in first, just a large space in standard, which is where I’d be placed. Once I was on board my contemporaneous tweets told their own story:

  • Now I know why the Southeast Trains lass was stumped by my q. about the diff between 1st & std. All wheelchair users go in a pit by the loo.
  • WHY did I say train travel is underrated? Already I’m dirty & can feel my soul ebbing away. Not even any power points & my phone’s abt to d..

You get the idea. And I was stuck with a drunken idiot who used the toilet and then laughed “ah! You’re downwind, at least it wasn’t a number two!” Charming. He then sat in a flip down seat next to me and then proceeded to interrogate me about my disability throughout the journey, and although I made polite excuses about reading my book I couldn’t physically escape, so that is how my entire journey was passed…. I’ve never had such a horrible trip and was glad to return home by car.

Wheelchair space on Southeast train
The space I was forced to use in my wheelchair on Southeast Trains – next to the toilet.

Since I’ve been accommodated adequately by First Great Western, Virgin, Eurostar and others, I had never imagined that wheelchair users would just be left in an open plan space next to the toilet! If I had bought a first class ticket, I wouldn’t have been able to use it.

What have I learnt from this terrible experience? Well from now on, I am adding to my list of requirements: “at least one sliding door between me and the toilet”.


4 Responses to "Let the train… create the strain?"

As the parent/carer of a disabled child, I have become more and more aware of the issues surrounding services and accessibility for wheelchair users, and public transport in general is utterly appalling. To be just put somewhere is pretty crap, but when they haven’t even taken into account that a disabled bay needs to have an accessible toilet in easy reach (but not sniffing distance), and the staff don’t check to make sure you’re able to get snacks and drinks, it’s basic stuff really, so it’s absolutely crap that it’s not freely available to you.

Absolutely. The other consideration that hasn’t been made is for other travellers in the same party. Generally I travel alone. However, imagine I’d been with my family on that trip to Hastings – the others would have been relegated to hard fold down seats, and it’s not as if we could spread out and enjoy a picnic next to the toilet!

By comparison, I went on a Virgin train to Liverpool a few years ago for our wedding anniversary. Engineering works meant the train was going to be slow, but I planned for that and brought a bottle of fizz and some sandwiches and strawberries, which it was lovely to enjoy – me in my chair one side of a table, my husband in a comfortable seat on the other. I had just assumed I would be at a table and luckily I was. Spending 3 hours next to a toilet would have been a poor way to start our romantic break away!

Southeast Trains did reply to my complaint about the way I was stationed in little more than a pit, but the letter was full of weasel words. I will never travel with them again – simple as that, it was so disgusting.

Sadly the sit-next-to-the-loo design is standard on “commuter” trains. Fortunately most of the train travel I do is between St Pancras and Leicester which are “intercity” trains thus have a sliding door between you and the bog.

Don’t get me going on Southeastern- their service- for _all_ users is crap and it’s getting worse.

We’re stuck in a region where they have a total monoploy too- they’re not actually a privatised company, but one of the ones that was taken back into public ownership, so the fault lies squarely with central government, not to some faceless company.

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