/ Travel & Leisure

Are train companies doing enough to help disabled passengers?

As we all know, being a passenger on some of the UK’s trains can be tough. But what’s it like if you’re disabled as well? Our guest Hollie-Anne Brooks gives her experience.

This is a guest post by Hollie-Anne Brooks. All views expressed are her own and not necessarily those also shared by Which?.

Which?’s TrainPain campaign has been highlighting and protesting against mistreatment of passengers for years: from frequent delays, to rip-off prices, to a lack of visible communication about your consumer rights. But how does travelling as a disabled passenger fare?

After recently falling ill with meningitis, I’ve gone from being an every day commuter to a wheelchair user who cannot get out much.

Over the past month, I’ve faced shocking treatment on trains that has now stopped me from travelling alone – something no-one should ever feel scared or intimated to do.

The situation’s gotten so bad, I’ve taken to filming and speaking out in public against Greater Anglia’s patronising and discriminatory behaviour to highlight an issue that I believe is sadly happening across the UK.

Wheelchair access

Just the other day, a Greater Anglia train from Norwich to Colchester saw my designated wheelchair space used as a catering cart and tea and coffee served from it.

Instead of the space I requested, which allowed my boyfriend to assist me, I was placed in an unsafe spot with boxes of food and water piled up by my feet – blocking my ability to alight from the train.

Part of the problem for disabled passengers is the fact that you have to pre-book every bit of assistance around 24 hours before you travel, taking away any sort of spontaneity.

With different rail companies across the UK having different processes and ways of booking, assistance is already a struggle before you start. And the reality is, it’s hit-and-miss whether you’ll even be provided with it.

Left stranded

Another ever-present risk is that there won’t be a ramp ready at your arrival station – and you’ll be left on the train unable to get off.

This has happened to me in the past, and I’ve had to ask members of the public to step in and jam doors open so the train can’t leave until a member of staff has sorted a ramp for me.

This is clearly unacceptable and a constant and very real worry for disabled passengers.

Getting on the train often isn’t much easier. Recently a train left without me because waiting for my wheelchair ramp would have caused the already late-running train to be even later.

I had to watch as those who could easily walk onto the train got on and set off on their journeys as I was left crying on the platform, my pre-organised trip ruined. All this despite double checking about assistance and being on time.

Speaking out

So, what’s to be done? Complain to staff members at the stations and, in my experience, it falls on deaf ears – there’s a palpable lack of awareness about the problems disabled passengers face. Maybe this is down to a lack of staff training by rail companies.

If you make a formal complaint to the rail company then I’ve found you can expect to wait a while for a reply that feels like a copy and paste, blaming staffing or signalling issues.

But if enough of us are vocal on this issue, we can make change happen.

If you see a disabled passenger having difficulty on a train, or trying to board or alight from one, contact the rail company and your local MP and let them know how unhappy you are at their treatment of disabled passengers.

Raising awareness

If it’s happening to you, shout about it. If you’re able to film incidents on a smartphone, do it. Complain to your train provider and, from November, take it to the rail ombudsman if you’re not happy with the response.

Speak to your local MP and, if you think a law has been broken, use the government’s Equality Advisory Support Service for more information.

Finally, share your stories – whether you’re a disabled passenger or not. The more we speak, the louder we’re heard – if not by the train companies themselves then by government and its regulators.

Have you encountered similar problems using trains as a disabled passenger? How could rail travel be improved for those with access needs?

This is a guest post by Hollie-Anne Brooks. All views expressed are her own and not necessarily those also shared by Which?.

We offered Greater Anglia a Right of Reply to Hollie-Anne’s experience. A Greater Anglia spokesperson said:

“We’re sorry that Hollie’s recent travel experience has not been as easy as we would like it to be. We have offered to meet her so we can apologise personally and discuss how we can help her to travel by rail more easily. We are waiting to hear from her.

“Meeting Hollie would give us the opportunity to clarify what happened on the journeys that she complained about via social media and through the press.

“We have around 76,000 journeys a year on our trains where passengers require assistance. The vast majority of these journeys go smoothly.

“We work closely with a group of disability professionals and disabled people to review incidents such as Hollie’s.

“Hollie has on occasions been caught up in disruption, when trains have been cancelled, most recently due to signalling problems. Greater Anglia staff have on every occasion, made sure that Hollie is helped on and off trains and continued to her home station by taxi and on one occasion by bus, when a member of staff accompanied her.”

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Both pensioners, I took my disabled, wheelchair bound husband to Paris three years ago. I was apprehensive at making the journey but he knew he did not have long to live and wanted to go. We went on the EuroStar and the journey was an amazing success. We could not have received better service. My husband was treated with dignity when he was boarded both in London and Paris and we were both taken care of. We had an enjoyable trip and returned happy and relaxed. On our return journey we needed to travel on SWTrains to our local station in Surrey. I contacted SWT before we left and booked assistance. I was told all had been arranged and as there was no lift at our local station we would need to disembark at the next stop but that SWT would arrange a taxi home for us. I should have known when we arrived at Waterloo that it was going to be a disaster. We had been told to go to the platform gate and say we had booked assistance and help would be given to board us. Nobody wanted to help. I finally left my husband and ran up and down platform until I found the Station manager talking to an employee. I explained that we had booked assistance and did not want to miss the train.He was disinterested but asked a very young girl to deal with the matter. She found the ramp but experienced great difficulty pushing my husband aboard whilst the SM and friend stood by chatting. Before we left I asked for reassurance that help would be ready at our home station and this was confirmed. When we arrived there was no help. Another passenger jammed the door as I frantically looked for the guard. He hurriedly found a ramp on the train and got us off. The train left and we were alone and abandoned on the platform. I discovered the lift and took my husband up to ground level. The booking office was closed and the station was deserted. There was no promised taxi and we needed to wait for an hour whilst we telephoned for a suitable one to arrive. We arrived home fraught and exhausted. I did make a complaint but received no explanation nor apology. We never trusted travelling by train again.

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Sorry to hear this happened to you, Ann. It sounds like a dreadful experience; it’s terrible that the train company didn’t even respond.

In think that is a good case to take straight to the new Rail Ombudsman. Someone’s head should hang in shame for that and although compensation doesn’t put things right I think a three-figure sum would be appropriate as a form of punitive damages for Mrs Bullon. The station manager at Waterloo has a lot to answer for by her account. SWT has lost the franchise now but I expect the same personnel are in their previous roles and just wearing a different uniform.

Jenny O'Donnell says:
5 February 2022

It is now 2022 and I have only just seen this subject (assistance or lack of for disabled travellers). I have not used any form of public transport since I became disabled 5 years ago. This discussion appears to bear out everything I feared. I am a pensioner who can walk fairly easily with the help of a rollator but I have not been able to find one that would be good enough to trust on a train journey, especially with luggage . They force tall users to bend over them, which cuts down the ability to take notice of hazards, and the lightest rollator, at about 6 kilograms, is not instantly manoeuvrable even when closed up. I guess my problem is a minor one compared with those experienced by wheelchair users or mothers with toddler, pushchair and luggage.