Disability Today – My life long love affair with train travel

September’s Disability Today – My life long love affair with train travel has been written by Liz Trethewey, a new member to the Access Group.

My Life Long Love Affair With Train Travel

As a wheelchair user from 5 years old, I am a life time rail traveler.  Long before modern trains all wheelchair users, including disabled children were forced to travel in the guard’s van, along with bikes, piles of goods and often drunk people thrown off the main part of the train! When I started working and commuting I travelled daily to London with my briefcase and learned to smile at the astonishment of guards who were not used to helping disabled people onto trains whose destination was to go to their place of work just like everyone else.

I travel on Southern trains and in recent years the controversy surrounding Driver Only Operations (DOO) has caused great concern and anxiety for disabled people. The government introduced an ‘inclusive transport strategy’ in 2018, which signals improved access for rail travelers, excuse the pun there! However, it would appear there are no specific extra resources to accompany the strategy. Rail franchise operators though are required to produce a ‘Disabled People’s Protection Policy’ which should set out its commitment to access for disabled rail users.  The government also offers the opportunity for local operators to apply for funding to improve access to stations, through the ‘Access for All’ fund.  A current example of this in East Sussex is the lack of access to Battle station for people with limited mobility.  It is hoped that another attempt to apply for funding in November 2018 will result in a grant to make these vital improvements.  Disabled people with sensory and mobility impairments are even more isolated in rural areas, where there are limited bus services and wheelchair accessible taxis are often not available as well as being very expensive.

I travel these days either on my own or with a friend with sight impairment.  Negotiating the rail network in a wheelchair is challenging enough, but I have learned so much more about the challenges people with sight impairment face.  On Southern trains the on board supervisors (OBS) make announcements as often as they can, but often it is too difficult to understand due to the poor PA system.  The information displays are not readable if you have sight loss and they are sometimes inaccurate and misleading for those with hearing loss who may not hear any announcements.

It is that it is now easier to book assistance 24 hours in advance and generally it is possible to just ‘turn up and go’ on major railway stations. Problems arise with the unexpected, where trains are cancelled or engineering works are taking place. Southern currently does not offer wheelchair access to rail replacement buses, a problem other rail franchises have put right.  Many barriers remain for disabled people who need to use the rail network such as access to non- staffed and rural stations, and the Driver only trains where there is no 2nd member of staff on board to assist those needing to get on and off the train.

Written by Liz Trethewey