Why are the disabled passenger assistance services provided by UK train operators reportedly ‘patchy’ and ‘pretty stressful’? Annie Makoff finds out…
Wheelchair user Alan Benson was left on the train at sidings when his booked assistance failed to turn up. Christoph Andrats had to activate the alarm button when the train doors were closing, with him still inside. Rupy Kaur is often late for work meetings due to delayed booked assistance.
These are just some of the examples told to Access by those who say they have been frequently let down by booked passenger assistance services.
Disabled passengers requiring assistance can either ring their train operator or use a recently introduced online booking form. Their personal details are saved in a central location, so that transport staff anywhere can access their information. All in all, it’s a straightforward yet invaluable service that enables disabled people to travel independently across the UK.
Providing free travel assistance for disabled people is actually a legal requirement for all train operators, but many disabled people are unaware that it’s a legal obligation, rather than a ‘nice to have’ service. Nor are they aware of their right to alternative transport, such a taxi, if a particular station is inaccessible.
According to Lianna Etkind, Campaigns and Outreach Coordinator at the London-based charity TransportForAll, it’s a “Well-kept secret, hidden away in operators’ disabled persons’ policies.”
Based on hundreds of complaints received by the charity over the years, Lianna describes the situation as “Pretty dire,” with disabled passengers being left on trains, stranded on platforms or made to feel a nuisance. Far from being the invaluable service that rail operators aspire to, booked rail assistance appears to be patchy at best, and at worst, a pretty stressful experience.
Stranded at midnight
“We’ve heard some appalling examples of things going wrong,” Lianna says. “A guide dog owner was guided onto the train in such a way that they hit their leg and it started bleeding. The staff member didn’t offer any assistance. And a wheelchair-user was left stranded at midnight with no ramp available.”
Even former Paralympic champion Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson tweeted recently about her own disappointing experiences with booked assistance and asked people to respond if they’d also been let down. Within minutes, she’d had 15 responses.
Alan Benson became so exasperated with the frequent failures of passenger assistance, he started documenting his experiences in a blog called Never a Dull Journey. “I take three or four train journeys a week and in 80 or 90% of cases, something always goes wrong,” he explains. “So I thought I should start keeping a record to see what the success rate was and if there were any repeating patterns.”
On one particularly challenging journey, he ended up being taken to the sidings where trains are parked for the night, separate from the main rail track. Alan had to wait for the driver to make a chance return before managing to attract his attention. He now ensures that he always has a fully charged mobile phone with him and will no longer travel alone.
Mark Fox’s experiences of being ‘abandoned’ by staff halfway through a journey have left him similarly reluctant to travel unless he’s with someone. “If there was no one to meet you at the other end and no other passengers around, you’d be completely stuffed,” he reasons.
Like other disabled people that Access spoke to, Mark has one simple, straightforward idea for making it a better service. “It just needs to be reliable,” he says. “You need to know that when you’ve booked assistance, they will stick to what’s been booked. And there has never been any apology when things have gone wrong, just a grunt. One time, assistance arrived after a long delay, and even then, they moved at such a glacial pace we almost missed our train.”
Cajoled into booking
Christoph Andrats too has experienced problems. He was forced to activate the emergency alarm when he realised – nearly too late – that no one was coming to help him off the train. But instead of responding to the alarm, the driver ignored it and made repeated attempts to close the train doors.
In a series of emails seen by Access, Christoph complained to the train operator who responded by reiterating the importance of pre-booking assistance.
“It’s unacceptable that disabled people have to book so far in advance,” replied Christoph in one email. “The lives of disabled people are just as complex, varied and unpredictable as anyone else’s life. And being cajoled into booking assistance in advance tells me only one thing – that train companies are not willing to make the extra effort to accommodate disabled travellers on an ad-hoc basis.”
For Rupy Kaur, who is reliant on rail travel for work, booked assistance tends to be more of an ‘inconvenience’. In her experience, she’s always been helped on and off the train, but it’s the waiting for staff that has proved problematic.
“Booked assistance either works really well or really poorly,” she explains. “Stockport staff tend to be quite prompt, but in Manchester or London there is the sense that staff are in no rush to help.” Rupy has often had to wait for up to 15 minutes, resulting in her being late for pre-booked taxis and ultimately for work meetings.
“I am often delayed by rail staff, yet they insist on my arriving 20 minutes before departure, as well as pre-booking at least 24 hours in advance. It should be a two-way street.”
According to TransportForAll’s Lianna, “It means disabled people can’t say to their friends, ‘Let’s go for a coffee,’ or ‘This shopping trip has taken longer than I thought, let’s get a later train’. That kind of spontaneity to live your life is essential. It’s why TransportForAll have been focusing on our ‘turn up and go campaign’ to encourage train operators to allow disabled people to get assistance without having to book.”
Yet what all these issues inevitably boil down to is that many disabled people are simply put off travelling by train all together. As Lianna concludes: “For every journey that disabled people do, there are many disabled people who decide it’s not worth going out, so they stay at home. That’s the hidden tragedy of all this.”
The Industry Responds
David Sindall is Head of Disability and Inclusion at the Association of Train Operating Companies (ATOC)
We deliver over 1 million passenger assists per year and research has shown that we have a 90% success rate. But we are aware that things do occasionally go wrong.
Improving the way passenger assistance works is a continuous process, so there will never be a time when we say, ‘It doesn’t need any further developments’. It’s therefore important that people complain when things go wrong. The complaint should be made to whoever the initial booking was made with, so it can get passed down the system; we’ve become much better at forensically investigating what’s happened.
The new Passenger Assist booking system for example, has really improved accountability. It’s much easier to see who the booking job was allocated to and whether they did it correctly.
Passenger Assist is available to all train operators, and every staff member has access to the records and customer profiles that are stored centrally. It can also record frequently-made and repeat journeys, so booking is easier than ever. We’ve also recently released a staff app which will ensure that on-board rail staff have better quality information about those who have booked assistance.
When it comes to inaccessible stations, a lot of people are unaware that we have a legal obligation to provide alternative transport. This can include taxis. But it’s one reason why we need a 24-hour booking system to arrange alternative transport if necessary.
At the same time, we recognise that it’s a legitimate demand for disabled people to want to travel spontaneously. We are currently investigating whether we can have a ‘turn-up-and-go’ system within the Greater London network instead of having to pre-book.
In fact, what we have in Britain is far better than anywhere else in Europe; there are only limited passenger assistance networks in France and Germany. What we offer is probably the biggest and broadest offering. You can travel to any station on any rail network and we will do our best to get you there.
A list of links to the access information provided by UK train operators, with accompanying telephone and textphone numbers, can be found here.