/ Travel & Leisure

Sophie Christiansen: my fight for equality

Disabled passengers are still having to fight for fairer travel. Eight-time Paralympic gold medalist Sophie Christiansen kindly shares her experiences with us.

This is a guest post by Sophie Christiansen. All views expressed are Sophie’s own and not necessarily shared by Which?.

Earlier this month, I noticed that it had been a year since Hollie-Anne Brooks featured as a guest here on Which? Conversation, discussing her own access experiences.

But what’s actually changed in that time? In August, this happened to me when I attempted to leave a train:

I was told that there was a guard onboard that would help me off. There wasn’t. I cried when I got home that day.

I’ve since written to my local MP and started a government petition – I want to see the Equality Act both enforced and respected. Are phrases such as ‘reasonable adjustments’ too vague and only allowing companies to get around it?

I’m still seeing buildings and infrastructure going up seemingly without a thought given to access needs. It’s so humiliating to rely on help when simple fixes, such as permanent ramps instead of steps, could be implemented.

Travelling by train

The video I’ve included above reached thousands of people on Twitter – I was grateful for the kind words and support I received a result.

It’s such a shame, however, that these are not isolated incidents. Hollie’s experiences sound only too familiar, while I also read the BBC’s Frank Gardner’s story with interest.

Earlier this year, my fellow Paralympian athlete Anne Wafula Strike was awarded a financial settlement, after yet another regrettable incident on the trains.

I want to see improved communication between booking, platform and train staff. For example, what’s the progress on the introduction of this app?

I feel that collecting data on these experiences should also be a priority – how often do passengers not get the help they need? How can we use this data to prevent these incidents from happening again?

Investment in level access and automatic ramps is something that can’t come soon enough, while disabled toilets (that actually work!) are a must. These companies must remember the fact that if the toilet in my carriage is out of order, I cannot move down the train to find another one.

Seeking equality

It’s also important to remember that these injustices are not just limited to trains. Two years ago, I would have missed a flight to Athens if my boyfriend hadn’t been with me to help me up the steps.

I had stated when I booked that assistance would be required, but due to flaws in the check-in procedures before and after security, the ambulift was not in place.

The equality I’m seeking doesn’t end with transport. From fully accessible housing to employment and care provisions, I want to see changes across the board to help give myself and others, such as Hollie, the better quality of life and day-to-day treatment and respect we deserve.

I feel like disability issues have been ignored and, in some cases, swept under the rug for so long that the problems have only piled up.

I want to see action to prevent things from getting worse. The more we put access and equality on the agenda, the more chance we stand of reaching equality in the UK.

This was a guest post by Sophie Christiansen. All views expressed were Sophie’s own and not necessarily shared by Which?.

Thank you very much to Sophie for sharing her experiences with us for Which? Conversation. Getting on and off of transport should not be a stressful ordeal for anyone.

I know we’ll all want to see the systems and processes in place to make sure passengers with access needs have the infrastructure and support that’s necessary.

We asked South Western Rail to comment on the incident Sophie has shown us above. A spokesperson said:

“We are incredibly sorry at the way Ms Christiansen was left feeling following her journey with us in August. Whilst we successfully assist tens of thousands of customers every year, even one failed journey is too many.

Un-booked passenger assistance is a challenging area for the railway industry as a whole and SWR is no different. We are working hard with industry colleagues and the RDG in investing in both technology and processes to try and stop this from happening.

We recently met with Ms Christiansen to apologise and to ensure we learn all the lessons possible to prevent it from happening again”

Do you think access to transport is improving at all? Do you have a story to share? If so, do get in touch in the comments below.

Comments

It’s not just the trains – there are many stations that don’t have step-free access to all platforms. I’m fortunate in being able-bodied, but it’s a real pain to have to lug my fully laden bike over the footbridge at Ledbury (Hfds.) station to reach the eastbound platform. Those with heavy suitcases and prams/pushchairs face similar problems. Recently, grants were made available to provide proper access to all platforms in over 70 stations nationwide – Ledbury is not on that list. I’ve contacted my MP about this and was told this is mainly due to ‘lack of footfall’. With an hourly service to Birmingham and 5 trains a day to London, this is hardly surprising – plus the only way I can think of to measure ‘footfall’ would be through ticket sales. Ticket inspectors are a rarity, so draw your own conclusions….
There are only 4 stations in Herefordshire, of which Ledbury is the only one that STILL falls foul of the 1995 Disability Discrimination Act (which became mandatory in October 2004). When Abergavenny and Worcester Shrub Hill (both on the list) get full access, Ledbury will be the only station within a 50 mile radius that fails users. The advice given to disabled travellers is to take a train in the opposite direction (to Hereford, where they terminate) and come back on it towards Birmingham at no extra cost, but incurring an extra hours travelling time.

DerekP says:
28 September 2019

Steve, sorry to hear of those woes but thanks for sharing. Sending folk unable to use the stairs to Hereford and back again sounds really daft.

I wonder how much effort has really gone into solving that problem. All you seem to have is a lowest cost token work around.

I’m guessing that Ledbury still has two platforms so trains can cross there. Otherwise they could just use the current westbound platform for all trains.

This problem occurs elsewhere. The situation at three stations in Norfolk is as follows –

At Wymondham the only way off the southbound platform is by climbing up a long flight of stairs and immediately going down a longer one. Getting on to the southbound platform is only slightly easier but still involves two flights of stairs. Disabled passengers from Norwich wishing to get off a train are advised to remain on the train and go on to Attleborough and then alight. They then need to leave the platform, go over the level crossing, cross the road, and go up the ramp onto the northbound platform [the two platforms are on either side of a main road] where they can wait for the next train back to Wymondham.

At Thetford passengers with mobility difficulties are advised to get a taxi to the other platform [assuming there is one available which is often not the case] for which the fare will be reimbursed or make a similar reverse journey to the next station and back.

At Diss the footbridge is very high because it has to clear the overhead electric cables. The station staff [if on duty] will escort a disabled passenger across the tracks on a level foot crossing but only when a white light is showing to indicate that there is no train approaching. The alternative is to make a round trip in either direction of about sixty miles and hope the wait for a return train is not too long.

All passengers who are encumbered with luggage, children, bicycles, and prams or are elderly or infirm also face these problems every day. A few years ago I wrote to the MP’s whose constituencies included these stations and received replies that expressed sympathy but no prospect of a solution. I don’t understand why the stations aren’t included as a priority in the ‘Access for All’ programme. Perhaps they are but the money available isn’t adequate. Thetford station is all listed as being of historical or architectural interest and that was given as an obstacle to improvement. The ancient iron footbridge with rotten floorboards is a Victorian original but I see no reason why a new one with lifts on each side could not be erected at the opposite end of the platforms where it would not impair the historical setting.

Brian Reid says:
28 September 2019

Just returned from Spain, There was no problem there as trains have a centre carriage with a section lowered to platform height so wheelchairs, buggies etc roll straight on. Carriages made by same company who supply the British ones. Just bad planning in the uk

I live near a town that used to have a Crown Post Office with parking outside the door. This has now been replaced by a counter inside a branch of WH Smith, on a street where no vehicles are permitted. This will make it difficult for some disabled drivers. I asked about this in the new Post Office and was told that there are three disabled spaces (which have been created recently) but these are too far away.

I do hope that Sophie can help raise awareness of the needs of the disabled.

Blue badge holders can park on the public highway where or when waiting is not permitted so long as they do not cause an obstruction. This could possibly be useful in that situation, Wavechange, but if the street has been physically closed then I think the Post Office made a bad decision to relocate there and should be pressed to try to find a solution.

You are quite right, John, but the new Post Office is on a street marked “Pedestrian zone No vehicles”. The chap at the counter was aware the problem, said that they could do nothing, and suggested I contacted the MP, who he named. According to his voting record, our MP has generally voted against laws to promote equality and human rights. πŸ™

Simply put Wavechange , its hard to come across a more significant sentence on many levels in condemnation of the modern society we live in –
“our MP has generally voted against laws to promote equality and Human Rights “–a philosophical reality of those who govern us. –
An “A” for deep thought .

Pedestrianised areas are expanding in towns and cities and, to my mind, are a good thing. However they should not exclude disabled people who want, or need access. Some will permit blue badge holders to park (up to 11:00 am) and it seems you can apply for a white badge to get more general access.
https://www.nidirect.gov.uk/articles/further-details-contravention-code-54
https://www.infrastructure-ni.gov.uk/articles/permit-access-pedestrian-zone-white-badge

Here is a photo of one of the signs identifying the pedestrian area:

I do not understand the ‘Have you paid and displayed?’ sign.

Malcolm – Your links seem to refer to Northern Ireland. White badges are in use in London too, but are certainly not universal: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Disabled_parking_permit#England_and_Wales

Duncan – I could criticise our MP for a lot more but it’s not relevant to this topic.

In its previous location – not far away – disabled people could park outside the Post Office and there was short-stay parking for others nearby.

There are examples in Scotland and the UK where access is enabled to pedestrianised zones by qualifying people. I haven’t looked to see how extensive they are but one of my local towns had rising bollards controlling entry, activated by a card given to disabled people.
https://www.nottinghamcity.gov.uk/information-for-residents/transport-parking-and-streets/parking-and-permits/parking-permits/restricted-access-permits/
https://www.pkc.gov.uk/media/10632/Pedestrianised-zone-leaflet/pdf/2017507_pedestrian_zone.PDF?m=636510963957870000

Some disabled people are able to transfer from the car to a wheelchair but many cannot or need to have another person with them which not always be possible. In view of the suggestions made for facilitating access to the post office and other shops the local authority should be putting more effort into making suitable provision, either through physical measures like unlockable posts or rising bollards, or with designated spaces within the pedestrian zone, or through time adjustments to the vehicle ban [e.g. mornings only, or three days a week].

In the example shown for Wavechange’s local town I would say that disabled people should be able to take advantage of the loading exception [after 3:00 pm] so long as the blue badge and time clock were properly displayed.

Another possibility would be for the local council and/or the chamber of commerce or traders’ organisation to set up a transfer point with mobility scooters so that those driving in from out of town can easily access the town centre at any time.

You may be right about disabled people taking advantage of the loading exception, John, but the sign does not make this clear. Apart from in the evening, when deliveries are made and rubbish collected, I have not seen anything other than mobility scooters in the pedestrian precinct. There is an out-of-town Post Office a mile or so away and if the photo on Google Maps is up to date, you can park outside.

Thanks for the links Malcolm. I’m interested in provision for disabled drivers because my late mother could only walk short distances, even though she could manage round the house and even cope with the stairs. Sometimes she had to drive miles to visit shops with parking or disabled parking close to the entrance. In principle, a national system might seem best but on the other hand that lacks versatility.