/ 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.”

Do you feel that access for disabled passengers is improving?
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Thank you for sharing, Hollie-Anne.

I was at an (unnamed) transport museum a few months ago and one of the volunteers was showing us round an old model of bus. I asked about how disability accessibility was handled in the days of this particular bus, and he responded with a long explanation that basically called anybody who cares about this sort of stuff a ‘snowflake’.

His opinion was, in short, that regulation to benefit disabled passengers had compromised the design buses and spoiled things for everyone else and that ‘dial-a-ride’ service were perfectly acceptable.

I wish I’d pushed back on this particular occasion, but at least this gentleman in question had retired from the industry and was only a tour guide. But it still made me feel very uneasy.

It will take this sort of attitude leaving the industry entirely before disabled passengers get equal treatment from all levels of transport firms.

DerekP says:
18 September 2018

Greater Anglia’s reply above looks rather weak to me.

I don’t think they’re owning the issue that, having contracted to deliver services to Hollie-Anne, they then failed completely to deliver those promised services. Apologizing for things having been “less easy” than expected just isn’t good enough.

Hi Hollie-Anne, thanks for sharing your story – I wanted to pick up on the point about how your train left without you even though you had pre-booked. If you had got a taxi to your destination, then you would have qualified to have it paid back under consequential loss.

It’s important that other passengers experiencing similar issues with pre-booked services don’t end up feeling helpless – they can still make their journeys and get their money back! We have a tool that you might find helpful.

I knew about this a while back because I was asked to sign a petition on it. The petition included a incident case by the petitioner and links to other incidents involving frail & handicapped people . There is no excuse – the train will be late doesn’t wash with me or “its our profits stupid ” just think of yourself in their position or is this new society so hard-nosed and cruel ? When I lived in London it wasn’t like that on the trains , even got a ride in the goods carriage as I had a bike.

Train times are complex and delaying one service can have a huge knock-on effect. So we need to make sure that disabled people are promptly helped. All stations should have a member of staff available – either permanent or on call – to ensure that the disabled, or others who need assistance, are given it. I cannot see any other way of making this work, however, unless it is arranged in advance. That requires arranging assistance by the passenger and a commitment by the toc to provide it.

Angie Bennetton says:
20 September 2018

The worst experience I have ever had on a train was on a Cross Country service from Birmingham International. I had pre-booked but arrived at the station for my return journey earlier than I had expected. For most people this would just mean that they would get the next available train and get home early. For me this meant that I had to wait 90 minutes for the train I was booked on to because the first two available trains were over crowded so getting me onboard would have made them late. Because I had booked in advance, they couldn’t use that excuse for the third train so I had to sit by whilst the staff spent 15 minutes getting 30 + passengers off the train (some of them elected to stand inside the toilet cubicle instead, above and beyond given the stench) so that I could get through the already narrow corridor to the only wheelchair space onboard, which was occupied by 3 passengers and at least 7 suitcases. The guard ended up physically lifting my chair into the space because giving me enough room to manoeuvre myself was basically impossible. The staff on this occasion did everything they could to get me on to the train I’d pre-booked, making it 15 minutes late, but the whole experience was horrendous – all those people staring and grumbling, though I heard only one negative comment directed at me personally rather than the train company.
That said, I always complain if pre-booked assistance fails in anyway and I always get at least part of the fare refunded when I complain. So far this year I’ve had a refund for 57% of my journeys, which I think highlights how widespread problems are.

Wow! That sounds incredibly frustrating and exhausting. I’m horrified to read that someone could make a personal remark to you as if the situation was your fault. It’s good to hear that you are getting at least a partial refund when these experiences happen, however, a refund doesn’t make up for the emotional effect it has on you. 57% is also incredibly high. I’ll be passing this on to our rail campaign team.

Lauri H says:
20 September 2018

As a frequent traveller and as a young person with a hidden disability (although I do have a walking stick for aid, which you would think makes it a little more obvious, but apparently not), I have experienced multitudes of difficulties when using trains. These can vary between dirty looks/remarks when I choose to sit in the disabled seats (which I don’t actually do that often, mostly for the following reason) or not being able to sit in disabled seats when I need to because people either assume I’m not disabled, or not disabled ‘enough’, and refuse to give up the seat – to being forgotten about by staff and expected to be able to act and move as an able-bodied person.

I’ve had a woman and her three children taking up all four disabled seats in the carriage and flat out refusing to give up one of the seats for me, and staff doing nothing about it (but later giving one up to an elderly lady – so was it my age or my disability that she objected to? Or did she, like so many others in public, assume someone my age couldn’t possibly be disabled?). I’ve had guards telling me to change trains after the one I was on was cancelled due to extreme delays, but only giving me a couple of minutes to get to the other platform – which included going up and over the tracks – without any assistance (safe to say I didn’t get on that train. The lifts take longer than that to even arrive). I’ve quite obviously physically struggled getting myself and a suitcase on the train without anyone, staff or other passengers, offering to help. I’ve had to stand for two hours – something I can’t do without a great deal of pain – because there are no seats available that I can get to (or because people, like the woman above, refuse to give up a seat for me), and the staff don’t step in to help (and when people /are/ forced to move, I’ve heard many tut and grumble as if it’s such a hardship for them to find another seat).

It’s one thing to make trains accessible. It’s another to get staff and passengers to respect that we’re people too, and have as much right to travel (without hassle or difficulty) as anyone else.

Quite right Lauri your the type of person I would fight for to get recognised that sometimes you need help in the public environment. Your right it will be your age in many peoples eyes and the lack of obvious outward features that show you as a handicapped person , makes you think about getting a T-shirt printed saying –even young people can be handicapped .

Terry Barfoot says:
20 September 2018

We also need to remember that these privatised companies are seeking to get rid of guards on trains, which will only make matters worse.

I am not sure that on trains that have full driver control we actually need guards just sitting around in case something happens, but I do feel that there should be an additional member of staff with proper safety qualifications on every train and for every additional unit [of 2, 3 or 4 carriages] in a multiple-unit train. Their role should be to assist passengers, check tickets and collect fares, deal with any queries especially during late running or disruption, and be able to take action during an emergency.

DerekP says:
21 September 2018

Hello everyone said, Thomas.

I’m sorry we’ll be leaving a little bit late this morning but, but we’re just waiting for my driver, my fireman and my additional member of staff with proper safety qualifications who assists passengers, checks tickets, collect fares, deals with any queries especially during late running or disruption, and who is able to take action during an emergency to finish their cups of tea.

I would have thought it possible to fit one carriage entrance on a train with a floor extension to allow wheelchair users access without the need for assistance. A problem is the large range of height difference between carriage floor and platform and carriage/platform gap, particularly on curved platforms. Interesting work was done on this a few years ago, with typical costings. http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20100209115701/http://www.dft.gov.uk/transportforyou/access/rail/vehicles/pubs/research/ss/significantstepssummaryofres6130

i consider the sensible way when someone requires assistance is to make arrangements with the depart station – either by phone or arriving sufficiently early to give staff the time to make any arrangements. For the destination station I would have thought the depart staff could notify them of the train you are on, the carriage you are in and that assistance is required. This requires all stations to be manned which is not the case. I don’t know how many are unmanned but either the next manned station could provide someone to assist, or the driver could be told.

I believe there is a liaison group – disabled and rail staff – that meet regularly to discuss such problems. Perhaps Which? could ask them to tell us what has been discussed?

Gary Turnbull says:
20 September 2018

If you take the money from a customer you would expect the contract made to be honoured.Surely with modern day communication the point of embarkation and disembarkation should be known by rail staff.How hard is it to look after disabled passengers you take the money and advertise a service so look after your passengers and provide the obvious facilities they need.This is a disgrace.

Virgin (Stagecoach) East Coast had the nasty habit of cancelling trains (because of technical faults?) and then cramming two loads of passengers into one train. All seat reservations were effectively nullified. People who were unsteady on their legs and could not join in the rush for seats often had to stand unless someone gave up the seat they had found. I only wish that Stagecoach had backed out of their franchise earlier.

Bruce Varney says:
20 September 2018

East Midlands Trains used to not charge Disable people for parking their cars in the car park at Wellingborough Station. They now charge either £10 on peak or £5.50 off peak. Last time I looked there were only 3 designated Disabled spaces in the three car parks, that is an average of one space per car park. The rest of the spaces are so small that if a disabled person parks between two other cars then they will not be able to get out of their car.
I have complained to East Midlands Trains about the car parking but they never bothered to have the decency to reply.

Marlene Batley says:
20 September 2018

I am in a wheelchair and live in Wymondham in Norfolk, I have to book to get on and off the train which is a Nightmare The station I go anywhere on has no access on both sides of the station, if I go to Norwich I have to come back and get off at Attleborough station and get a Taxi back to Wymondham.
At first, they wanted me to pay for the taxi, when I refused they said they would sort it which they did.
Before I was in a wheelchair I could walk up the steps both sides to get on and off the train. I have been trying to resolve this since 2012 with George Freeman without success

Linda Wiltshire says:
20 September 2018

I think having any sort of disability is bad enough without lazy staff to contend with. They are paid to do a job not half a job. Something needs to be done. If I was incapable of walking or seeing and this happened to me I would be fuming. The journeys could take a lot longer unless someone pulls their finger out.

valerie howard says:
20 September 2018

Essential to keep guards on trains at all times.

Bill Duckworth says:
20 September 2018

The privatisation of the railways has failed. No matter how this privatise at all costs Government try to spin it, the only answer to the current problems and the disgusting treatment of people like Hollie-Ann Brookes is to re-nationalise.

Ade Wills says:
20 September 2018

I agree that the train company argument is pretty weak. I am also slightly disabled but it’s a hidden problem. We now provide assistance and are much more sensitive to other peoples feelings in many respects compared to the past. At least in theory. The train companies should respect this or be penalised heavily for not doing so. I think the treatment of disabled people in these situations is terrible. Worth saying that many years ago i worked for British Rail and despite complaints about the service my experience was that staff were much more helpful to passengers especially disabled and this was long before lifts over the rails from platform to platform on almost every station and no disabled seating as a general rule. It is an incontrovertible fact that privatisation results in profit first last and every time and care and concern go out of the window.

Anne Paulizky says:
20 September 2018

I do agree that more compassion needs to be shown towards disabled persons. I am disabled with a tremor which can become very severe. Some of the time I can walk fairly normally, but not at other times. I am unable to stand for more than a few minutes. When boarding trains, I find that ‘ordinary’ members of the public are occupying the seats designated for disabled or pregnant persons, and they normally will not move. I can understand they have paid for a ticket too, and feel entitled to a seat. They may be tired after a day’s work, or a long journey, or even feel unwell themselves. I think that some visitors who are not familiar with our language may not understand the notices displayed by the ‘disabled’ seats, and this does not help either. It is humiliating for me to be suffering in front of others, and often frightening to have to ask someone to give up their seat for me. Things need to be done to improve the present situation, especially for those who book assistance. They really need it, and should be respected and catered for in a pleasant and satifactory way.

Lewis Torrington says:
20 September 2018

The tocs basically don’t care their prime focus is profit and when they are supported by the government and in disputes lead by the government there not much hope for a better and more customer focused railway.
I’ve used the railway on several strike days and the management on the trains don’t seem to have much of a idea with the limited training they must have had.
One journey the replacement guard was putting delays down to the amount of passengers another mentioning the delays in between stations.
Another one had no idea of connecting services and stns

Ria Fitzpatrick says:
20 September 2018

Thank you for sharing your dreadful journeys. I am disabled since 2014 and use a wheelchair. Initially I was very upbeat and accepted this was to be my life from now on. In the last 4 years I have gone from a bully, happy go lucky person, to a disillusioned, unwanted member of the human race. I have had some good experiences, unfortunately too many negatives. For instance when asking for help in a big department store I was told ”Why don’t people like you shop on line”. I was left alone in my wheelchair at a bus stop because someone refused to make room in the wheelchair area. The driver said ”He did not want a row on his hands”. The person who denied me access in the disabled space laughed at me as the bus drove away. I have had bad experience on trains, planes, restaurants, shops, parked in disabled spot (Have Blue Badge displayed). Been spat on, told to stay indoors as I am not wanted in this world. What do I do now?? I only leave to go to the hospital by car and home again. I feel happy and accepted there. I stay indoors reading day in and day out. I keep up with the news. I am lucky I have a gorgeous little dog who is my best friend. I am not writing this for sympathy, I am just telling my story. We live in a sad world where if you are seen as not perfect, you do not belong. I think you have to have very thick skin to survive, I do not have that even though I looked after the sick all my life.

Rod Hart says:
20 September 2018

Having given up using public transport period. Travel by car seems much easier coupled with using the old routes rather than the motorways I can now get into the cities I use to get things done, on average 30 minutes quicker. Yet to work out the overall costs between the two fuel prices rising and falling does not help.
Last week I used the old A1 from Sheffield to Newark then A class roads to home quicker than the motorway by an hour however a much pleasanter journey.

Roy Coole says:
20 September 2018

Absolutely disgusting. It is about time that these multi national companies got a grip of their selves and catered for these poor individuals.
I have a disabled female who was disabled as a result of a driver being on his mobile phone.
She didn’t ask to be disabled it was forced on her by some individual who had no though for others.
She is now in a wheel chair some 4 years after the accident, I would call it “attempted murder”.