Trains; the sworn enemy of wheelchair users. They’re one of the biggest obstacles disabled people face on a daily basis, and what is perhaps the most frustrating aspect of this is that there is no need for them to be this way.
I’m not one with the money or time to travel around the UK on a regular basis, and my commute to the office where I have my “proper” job is so short that it takes me longer to wash my hair than travel to work. Still I’ve had a few experiences of using the trains, and have used three significant, large train stations; York, Leeds, and King’s Cross in London (think Harry Potter).
The first train station I visited was York. I had been on a weekend away on the North York moors with a group of friends from University, and had traveled up to the destination on a mini-bus provided by another local university. On the Sunday we traveled to the centre of York because Christmas in York is what dreams are made of, but the bus had to return early meaning we had to use the trains instead.
The train station was one of the most accessible buildings I had ever seen with smooth floors, a complete lack of steps, and space to manoeuvre. I was escorted to the correct platform where a ramp was already waiting for me in the doorway of the train, and a wheelchair space had been reserved for me in the carriage. The doors of the train were a little tight to squeeze through but that was my only criticism. Having heard horror stories about the treatment of wheelchair users on trains I was surprised, but welcomed the unexpected consideration of disability.
After 40 minutes the train pulled in the station in Leeds city centre. The doors opened, and I was expected to levitate onto the platform, despite prior warning that someone disabled would dare to use their facilities. My friends ran off to get a porter and a ramp while I sulked in the doorway, and eventually a ramp was provided by a very grumpy porter. The station itself was also highly accessible despite being quite an old building. It seemed mad that the building would cater so well for accessibility, but the trains themselves didn’t.
A few months later I went to London for the very first time. Leeds failed to provide a ramp and porter as did King’s Cross, despite warnings in advance of needing the support. Again King’s Cross itself was so accessible I could have cried, but the return journey was the same despite even more prompting to provide the resources I needed. I ended up hopping on and off the train while Jarred lifted my wheelchair on behind me as, thankfully, we had chosen to use my manual, fold-able wheelchair.
Whilst actually in London we used the tube to get around. Only half of the stations themselves were accessible, and even less provided access all the way to getting on an off the tube, meaning that many tourist attractions required Jarred to push the wheelchair for a long time to get there. There was still a significant gap between the train and the platform, even on the “accessible” carriages. A couple of times my wheels even got stuck in the gap and total strangers would have to help us out.
A year later I booked some more train tickets to London. The website was virtually impossible to navigate and it took a significant search to find the form describing what sort of seat/space I would need, and what times I would need a porter and ramp at both ends of the journey. Eventually the tickets were booked and then something happened that hadn’t the year before. I received an email with my “care plan” listed out explicitly, with what times I would need support and what seat I would have in the accessible carriage. All I had to do was print this out and show the piece of paper to the porters to prove that I had booked support, and it would be provided. Amazingly the system was very effective and it worked perfectly.
You could argue that someone disabled shouldn’t have to book a train 24 hours in advance to gain access to a ramp and porter and that you should be able to turn up, ask for help, and receive said help. We can’t be spontaneous while others can, and it is frustrating. However being able to get on the trains at all without a fight was something special, and is a welcome improvement upon the old system.
They could, of course, negate the problem entirely by having a little common sense; trains that line up exactly with a standardised platform height with a minimal gap, like they modified train stations to do in Japan…