/ 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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As a Traindriver I can tell you that my train would go (and have gone) late if a disabled, or for that matter any passenger requiring assistance, was unable to board. It’s MY train and it can go when I’M ready if need be, and although platform staff do have a job to do and get the trains moving on time, in certain circumstances they would just have to lump it or speak to control to over rule me. That said, I’ve never known staff on my route to do what Anglia did, that was absolutely disgraceful.

Jim McDowall says:
21 September 2018

Well spoken. Great to hear principles have not completly disappeared in this mad,sad, price of everything but value of nothing country we live in now👍

[Sorry, Gill, your comment has been removed to align with our community guidelines. Please do not make personal and offensive comments. https://conversation.which.co.uk/commenting-guidelines/. Thanks, Alex.]

Sandra Tracey says:
20 September 2018

Totally agree with Holly. The “assistance point” for my local station is inside the barriers – not much help when you can’t get through because the only wide barrier is fixed for exiting the station!

I don’t understand why those of us with Disabled Persons Railcards can’t book the priority seats on most trains. (Cross Country does offer this). It’s bad enough to see them occupied without reservation by eligible passengers boarding at the starting station, but when they are occupied by children on reservations… And what are disabled people supposed to do on trains when reservations are not available, eg London Victoria to the south coast, and Northern Rail?

Luggage space on trains is inadequate, leading to suitcases being left blocking doors and aisles. I have a photograph from a recent journey on a Cross Country service where an enormous suitcase has been left beside my seat, making it impossible for me to get out. Fortunately, the lady checking tickets appeared before I needed to get off, and moved it so that she could get through. I also posted a photo on York station showing the access ramp sitting in the wheelchair space in the “waiting room” on platforms 10 & 11!

I can only hope that the rail regulator’s office has better understanding of the issues affecting disabled people than is currently being displayed by another regulator’s office.

Be HONEST: the day after BR was privatised, it went down the pan. Profit before customers has been the norm. Remember, A lot of the rail companies in the UK are run by the EU government owned companies. Re-nationalise the whole network. As Scotrail admitted, there is NO spare rolling stock. In the old days before BR & during BR there was always spare rolling stock at many places in the UK for emergencies.

Ronnie Maxwell says:
21 September 2018

What has your comment got to do with the service as seen by those who are disabled? In fact I totally disagree with your comment anyway. The Pre Privatised service as run by the huge BR monolith service was GHASTLY! The rolling stock as used by BR was years & YEARS out of date and FORGET the idea of proper assistance being offered to those who had to travel in a wheelchair! I think you are deluded if you think the unions will allow a one stop service to provide better services. With no internal competition, their bargaining power with the management (the problem that BR management always had) will increase exponentially and if owned by the taxpayer, incentives will be lost to have an ever improving service that we wish for in this modern day & age. The current system of rail management has plenty of flaws but as a taxpayer, I don’t want MY TAXES to be used to start running/managing a transport service that can just as easily be run by private operators. I would far rather have a transport REGULATOR who had the power/teeth to lay down strict improvement targets on all the rail business, with a seamless disability support service being one of them!

John brownlow says:
21 September 2018

Wrong there are not many if any rail companies run by the EU government eg Virgin Richard Branson I believe, First Great Western, Stagecoach both American companies, I personally don’t travel by train, I prefer to use the car, but I know a very disabled person who travels to S.Wales quite often and he apparently has’nt had any problems.

John Stagecoach might be an international conglomerate BUT it aint American – headquartered in Perth and still run from there , prove to me its American owned ?

It has interests in the USA and Canada but is largely British owned.https://www.marketscreener.com/STAGECOACH-4006899/company/

Thank you malcom .

First Group is also a UK company, running both buses and trains. It is another British international success story as it is the largest provider of student transportation services in North America.

Stagecoach is also a British international transport company operating trains, buses, and trams and with extensive coach operations in the USA and Canada.

The German [DB], French [SNCF], Dutch [Abellio], and Italian [Trenitalia] state railways run [or are a partner in] a number of the franchises in the UK and a number of foreign commercial companies [including from Hong Kong and Japan] also have train operating interests in Great Britain.

Why do we waste our time standing for privatised rail or privatised anything else come to that?
Who needs a fat cat at the top skimming off millions in profits? Only the fat cat wins.
We should simply insist on public owned utilities and ditch the fat cats once and for all.
We can no longer afford to keep supporting the rich.

A “root & branch review” headed by Keith Williams by the Transport Dept. was announced today 20-9-2018 on Rail Transport -Chris Grayling Transport Secretary .puts forward plenty of “sound bites ” but going by the above posts it will need an earthquake of systemic proportions to quell the deserved criticisms https://www.news.com.au/world/breaking-news/britain-to-hold-review-of-rail-transport/news-story/4dfae6aa66ed87fe96a124aa12d6dc9c

Jim Davidson says:
21 September 2018

Hi This Jim, I think it’s only right that something should be done about it, were it be that the train is late or it doesn’t turn up at all I am disabled but I’m forchen net I don’t need help as such I don’t travel by train, I have a car but it shouldn’t make any difference there may be a time when I need a train and I can’t get one or it’s late. It is a bit rediculase something needs to be done they are certainly the train company making plenty of money they are not slow when they want to put the prices up, so they are making plenty of money and all I can is that we louse the money when they can drew the money in.

David Lockwood says:
21 September 2018

On Channel 4 news last night a spokesman for the rail companies claimed that renationalisation would make no difference to the ‘structural problems’ faced by the rail industry. This is straightforwardly wrong – most of the dreadful experiences I’ve suffered are due precisely to fragmentation of the service. No one accepts responsibility now, and companies almost invariably blame each other when things go wrong. For example, one journey with a pre-booked ticket involved three train companies. First company cancelled train because of shortage of drivers, so I missed connecting train. Second company then refused to accept my ticket and said I had to pay all over again!

Graham Osborne says:
21 September 2018

Yes, I agree with the comments above, and deeply sympathize with Holly-Anne. I have another problem with the rail services and the privatizations in the U.K. Last week I hoped to catch the 0747 Wightlink service from Ryde Pier. As I think most readers will know, the government of the day decided that the previously integrated service between the trains & Wightlink ferries to the Isle of Wight had to be privatized separately.
I was invited to catch the 0810 instead, and as this was the only ferry available, accepted. I arrived in Portsmouth to find that the connecting service had long departed. I was forced to abandon the rail (and accept the loss on my previously purchased ticket) and hire a cab to complete my journey.
If we have this ‘review’ by the Transport Department, can it include the Wightlink services to the Isle of Wight as well?

Peter Richardson. says:
21 September 2018

we had a problem. with wheel chair. we arrived at prestatyn station from london. they wouldent let us get off no ramps, even though it was booked. taxi drivers offer to lift us off, dozey rail way , health and saftey. real idiots. next station rhyl. the lift stopped working after 8 pm.next station colywyn bay no staff.
next station Llandudno junction, lift worked we were able to get to the front of the station, transport was supposed to be booked.(no transport).Virgins trains finally booked a taxi to take us to Abergele and prestatyn. Must of cost them a fortune.finally got home about 5 hours late.

Peter, I sympathise with your plight. I thought all stations had to have a ramp. Out of interest, is it not possible to lift a wheelchair off a train (with assistance) when there is no ramp?

Malcolm have you checked the regulations now as regards injury to staff if they manually assist handicapped people and injure their back ? I suspect they might be in big trouble BUT if I am wrong could you or somebody else post a statement saying the staff are FULLY covered ?

It isn’t only staff who can help, but members of the public. I’ve often helped people who needed assistance. I have no idea what, if any, obstacles are put in the way of staff helping people min this way. Perhaps a member of staff could tell us. However, it would be a sad reflection if it were the case. Normally H&S would simply require that someone was trained in lifting techniques, as in any organisation where such exertion is involved..

Thanks for the Conversation, Hollie-Anne. I am not a regular train traveller but if I saw a disabled person who might need help I would ask them if they needed assistance and try to do what they asked, whether that was to give help or to summon assistance from a member of staff. Perhaps the companies should seek the assistance of some disabled people to help them understand the problems.

As I commented earlier their is an advisory committee:
“What the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee does
The Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee (DPTAC) advises the government on transport legislation, regulations and guidance and on the transport needs of disabled people, ensuring disabled people have the same access to transport as everyone else. On 12 June 2013, it was decided to retain DPTAC to advise DfT on accessibility issues relating to disabled people.

DPTAC works with the Department for Transport.

Members of DPTAC are mostly, but not exclusively disabled people. They are public appointees recruited to serve for about 3 years.

Members require a high level of understanding of the transport needs of disabled people.

They are required to work with others to constructively and pragmatically increase opportunities for disabled people to travel independently and safely. DPTAC members work with Department for Transport officials, representatives of the transport sector and organisations representing disabled people in order to achieve these goals

Perhaps Which could contact this committee for a contribution?

What I am suggesting is that the companies monitor their own performance regards disabled users. Hollie-Anne might not have had to write this Conversation if this had been done.

The DfT will presumably publish national requirements that all ToCs should observe.

These companies need to monitor that the requirements are being met.

Norman Rimmell says:
21 September 2018

Crazy pricing system. Why does a ticket from Hereford to Lowestoft via Birmingham always cost more than the same journey in reverse direction, no matter what time of day?

Traffic flow Norman -IE- profit , to encourage more travel in that direction is one reason — there are others .

21 September 2018

The other day while flicking from one channel to another on TV I saw a train being shown in a European country that when the doors open a boarding platform slide out from the carriages. With so many of our station platforms being at different heights and on bends this seems a sensible solution for elderly and disable passengers to be able to get on and off a train with probably little or no assistance.

The rail companies are buying all this new trains but with the same built in faults. Can they never learn?

Interestingly, Greater Anglia have ordered new trains for all their services and many of them [possibly all of them – I have not checked] will have sliding ramps under each doorway that will help disabled passengers in wheel chairs or mobility scooters to negotiate the gap between the train and the platform without the need for staff to be in attendance. The ramps will deploy automatically when the sliding doors are opened. The train operating company took a party of disabled people from East Anglia to the train builder’s works in Switzerland to see the new features and comment on their design and suitability. A number of sensible modifications were recommended that had not been thought of by the specifiers or designers and are being incorporated in the build. A particularly thoughtful one was to have a call button at floor level in the toilet compartment so that if someone had fallen down and couldn’t get up they could summon help.

By 2020 all trains operating on the UK networks [possibly excepting some trains on preserved railways] will have to comply with the European “Persons with Reduced Mobility Technical Specifications for Interoperability” [PRM TSI] Regulations. These cover, among other things, access, audible door warnings, passenger information systems, and toilets.

While this is very welcome it will not deal with all the problems that disabled passengers experience and it is not only passengers in wheel chairs who might need assistance. Those with other mobility aids or particular difficulties could still find it awkward to get in and out of trains and will probably have to continue to rely on other passengers for help if they are travelling on their own.

One excellent outcome of the new requirements will be the complete elimination on public service trains of slam doors. The mainline carriages on the Greater Anglia London – Norwich route still have slam doors and to get out you have to lower the window, put your arm out and downwards, and operate a lever in a downwards and sideways direction to open the door while leaning on it to push it outwards against the camber at some stations. I find this difficult and have average length arms and reasonable strength. For passengers with shorter arms than average it is impossible and they need to seek help from another passenger. Their worst fear is being the last passenger in the carriage so they have to go along the train to find someone who could help, They usually ask the conductor to assist when he or she checks the tickets but they sometimes forget. Thankfully there is usually someone who will offer to help without having to be asked. The sole virtue of the slam doors is that the train cannot depart until every door is closed and locked so a member of staff will have to attend if no one else is available.

Andrew Perrott says:
21 September 2018

I’m glad that I’m no longer at the beck and call of public transport, having retired. I still use trains, and the experience is variable…at least Arriva Trains wales is going, and not before time…mediocrity is a polite word for a very poor offering.

Now…commuters get what they deserve; that won’t go down well, will it?! Perhaps that’s a bit harsh but, in these days of mass communication, why has nobody thought to organise to bring the system to a standstill…in other words, give the companies a bit of their own medicine?

Examples: (1) Organise into groups; at a pre-arranged signal, stand in doorways so that trains cannot depart. (2) Refuse to vacate trains at the end of journeys. (3) Blank all company employees; you’re going slow or on strike when your ticket is requested. (4) Descend en masse on the train operators’ offices at mainline stations every time there’s a delay/cancellation. (5) Submit claims on a per-hour basis for time wasted because of non-service. (6) Organise class actions against the companies. in short…come on, people…MUTINY!

Ron Atkinson says:
21 September 2018

I wonder has Holly contacted Baroness Tanni Grey -Thompson who is also wheelchair bound and travels frequently by train?

Has Hollie contacted Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson who is a wheelchair user and travels frequently by train?

Not all disabled people use wheelchairs.
I can walk but have a serious muscle disorder which results in pain on walking and slows me down significanly.
I use GWR frequently travelling between Paddington and West Wales.
It is the time between announcing which train platform to use to and the train departure time that is not only inadequate but seems to have been reduced of late (7 minutes, earlier this week). Considering that the new trains are much longer than previously, it is becoming a very stressful affair.
I find it extremely antisocial and degrading, particularly when seat resevration in not possible or when carrying or pushing heavy luggage. Older people feel they are being punished.
Shameful is the state of our railway service.

Sylvia Pickering says:
21 September 2018

I was not able to travel by train for more than twenty years – until one of my lovely Carers told me about ‘Assisted Travel’! What a fantastic FREE service this is! I am now able to travel all over the country to Meetings. Once I have booked my journey, by telephone, I can sit back, in complete confidence, knowing that I will arrive at my Meeting, on time, and safely. I always order, and pay for, my tickets when booking my journey – and they arrive by post on the next day. I am asked to arrive at my local station – Cambridge – at least 30 minutes before my train is due to arrive – and advise the ticket collector that I have booked with ‘Assisted Travel’. Within minutes, a porter arrives to assist me. I prefer to travel with my mobility scooter, but this is not always suitable if my journey includes Northern Rail. If this is so, I am pushed everywhere using a British Rail wheel-chair. The staff members are always polite and very helpful. They take me to my train, assist me into my seat, stow my luggage safely, and then inform the staff at the next station if I have to change trains for my journey – telling them what number seat that I am using. When we reach this next station, the next member of staff is waiting to assist me off one train, takes me to my next train, and assists me into my next seat, and he then informs the next station involved. This continues until I reach my destination station where I am helped into a taxi! I always offer a gratuity to each person helping me, but this is usually courteously refused. I was returning from a journey from Blackpool to Cambridge recently, and commented to the young lady, pushing my wheel-chair that I was surprised that we had arrived at Platform 1 instead of the usual Platform 3. She explained that their Computer had noted that there was a customer using the travel service, who would need to use the lift services, and the lift on Platform 3 was being repaired that day, which would have left the customer – me – stranded! So, the driver of my train was contacted, and he was advised to approach the station, and come in on Platform 1, instead of 3, so that the staff could help me to leave the station. Can you believe this incredible service? The train was diverted for ONE old dis-abled lady, so that she would not be inconvenienced!!! Of course, this would also have pleased other able-bodied passengers, perhaps carrying luggage, because they would not have needed to use two staircases to help them leave the station. I have had many little, delightful, adventures on my many journeys, but I have only the highest praise for this highly efficient service that has enabled me to travel wherever I wish to go!

It’s good to hear that when it works well end-to-end it is an excellent service for disabled passengers. I believe it is necessary to book the ‘Assisted Travel’ service at least 24 hours before the time of travel so that the train operators can get the resources in place – that is especially important where minor stations are involved which do not adequate [or any] staff to provide the service and an operative has to travel from another station.

The journey Sylvia described where the train was diverted to a different platform from usual must also have involved coordination with Network Rail to set the points and signals to enable this manouevre. A good bit of joined up railway operation – and not the last I hope.

Henry T. Spence says:
21 September 2018

The “rail network” has to be treated as a nationally strategic service & not as a profit generating mechanism – the multiplicity of companies currently involved in “managing” the existing system is an in-built receipt for disaster – as amply illustrated by the month’s of on-going chaos inflicted upon the travelling public in the north & south east of the country with the introduction of under resourced timetable changes.

This service need’s to be taken back into public ownership now – with management directly accountable to an independent regulator & subject to direct Parliamentary over-sight.!!!!

Sylvia, it is good to hear positive experiences. They are often lacking in these Convos. Maybe people feel they should only report deficiencies. I am guilty of that; I, from time to time, criticise Which?, rarely praise them – that would take up too much space and anyway I expect them to do their job properly as a matter of course.

Phillip Sheahan says:
21 September 2018

This is more than just sorting out the chaos of timetables and dysfunctional services. The plot has been lost entirely on the need for affordable, integrated, public transport. It costs more for a 30-minute train journey from my home than it does to fly to most of Europe. That is just nuts! Anyone on the minimum wage would have to work for 2 hours to pay for that 30-minute train journey. That is just ridiculous. The universal Oyster Card should be the vision: one ticket, transparent fare structure, fair and affordable pricing, guaranteed minimum service level. Public transport must be seen as a simple basic necessity: not an exploitative luxury with a price structure riddled with confusion and caveats. It can be done. In Sydney, Australia, for example, citizens are actively encouraged to use the public transport system by capping the daily fare (particularly on weekends). For example, on a senior ticket, one can travel all day by any combination of publically owned bus, train or ferry for $2.50 – all day for about £1.50. That’s what an enlighted and truly ‘public’ transport service should be aiming to achieve. Let’s keep that vision in mind and reclaim the rail system as part of a truly integrated transport policy.

“The annual cost of funding public transport in NSW is set to hit $5.7 billion within a decade, raising the prospect of commuters being slugged with higher fares to achieve a balance between those who “directly benefit” and others.

The strategy also notes that the gap between the operating cost of public transport and revenue recovered from fares, advertising and other means has grown by an annual average 4.5 per cent since 2012 to hit $3.6 billion in 2016. Due to increasing operational expenses as more infrastructure such as the Sydney Metro is built, it says the gap is expected to rise to $5.6 billion by 2026.

It depends upon how we want to make best use of public money, and whether bus and rail users of all incomes should be heavily subsidised by many who will not benefit.

I am all in favour of a decent public transport system, but we should pay what it costs. But keep those costs under control. Vanity projects like HS2 are unlikely to help.