Recently I was LIVE on BBC Radio 4 (national radio here in the UK) discussing accessibility on trains and the impact a fully accessible rail system would have on me, specifically on my employment prospects. This interview was quite short but got me thinking about the issues I experience as a wheelchair user trying to access trains. With that in mind, I thought I would discuss those issues, and some of the ways things are SUPPOSED to be improving, in this blog post. I know those of you who’ve been following for a while will have seen me discuss these issues in blog posts about specific journeys before in the “Travelling” section of the blog, but I thought it would be useful to have these issues compiled into one post.
Firstly, it’s probably best to put this (lack of) accessibility into context, which means STAT TIME! According to a report by Leonard Cheshire, 42% of train stations in England lack step free access. Obviously that’s close to half, which is a frankly ridiculous number. According to the same report, the Government is set to miss its target to make all stations step free by 2030, by 40 years and thus not have the programme complete until 2070. In 2070 I will be 74, which is absurd to think about, I’m only 24 now for pity’s sake! I REFUSE to wait until I am 74 to access the entire rail system in my home country. The worst thing is this is made to seem like it’s not an issue. 40 years is a pretty big deadline miss and there seems to have been very little outrage or coverage, other than from disabled people themselves and charities or groups like Leonard Cheshire.
So, what kind of impact does this inaccessibility have on me? Well, the Leonard Cheshire report focused on the impact on employment, so I guess I’ll focus there too. I’ve had to turn down jobs because I can only use public transport to commute to a job and the closest station to this particular location was inaccessible. Travelling by train to the nearest accessible station and then walking/ using the bus from there then made the commute undoable. Besides the obvious impact of literally having to reject jobs, there’s also so much extra work and stress that goes into job hunting as a disabled person who needs to commute via rail. First, I have to work out which is the nearest station to that location, then I have to work out if I can actually use that station. THEN I have to ask myself I actually trust the accessibility information, because the accessibility information and the actual accessibility experience can sometimes not match up.
Beyond that, I have to account for the fact that, even where there is accessibility, it’s often only partial accessibility or via certain routes. For example, the station where I used to live in Chippenham is considered accessible, but the accessible entrance side is up a giant hill which, as you can imagine, could be an even bigger accessibility hurdle for those in manual wheelchairs who have to self-propel or be pushed, and those with a variety of other access needs. There is also a requirement (apparently it’s a suggestion but it’s certainly made to seem more like a requirement to me) to prebook travel assistance 24 hours in advance. That means I have no room for spontaneity, no room for late running meetings and all that stuff that’s pretty standard in a job and a life in general.
And inaccessibility doesn’t end once I’m in the station. Even once inside, I don’t have equal access. I have to wait in a particular office for someone to walk me to the platform and put the ramp out, which means I am not independent when accessing the train. I also have to be at the station 20 or 30 minutes before my train in order to be sure of assistance. It’s pretty bold to assume I don’t have things that ‘I’d rather be doing that just sat in a train station waiting room for 20 or 30 minutes for what should be a 5-minute task, are we assuming here that disabled people don’t have lives and other things to do? SOME train companies have trains now with ramps that extend out from the train, but that’s only on SOME train routes with SOME companies. Independent access to trains shouldn’t be a lottery depending on where you live and which company runs your train lines. Then once I’m on the train there’s the stress of whether someone will be there to disembark me or if I will be abandoned on the train, yelling for assistance and hoping it doesn’t set off again with me still onboard.
There is also the issue of inaccessibility on trains themselves. There was legislation passed which stated that all trains were to be accessible by 1st January 2020, but at least 8 companies missed this deadline. Again, accessibility shouldn’t be a lottery depending on where you live and who runs your trains.
I also want to end by saying that, whilst the Leonard Cheshire report focused on the impact a fully accessible rail system could have on employment, It would have a wider impact too. This isn’t solely about employment, because disabled people (and people in general) are not just workers, we have social lives which would be greatly improved by a fully accessible rail system too.
Please support the effort for a fully accessible (or at least fully step free) UK rail system before that ridiculous 2070 predicted deadline.
Em (Invincible Woman On Wheels)