Recently, I had to travel on the trains during the national lockdown which we are currently under here in England. I travelled from Birmingham New Street to Erdington (a smaller station within Birmingham) with West Midlands Railway for an essential job interview. I thought it would be useful to let you know what it’s like travelling on the trains as a wheelchair user during lockdown, so here’s the lowdown on lockdown train travel!
Ticket Buying & Getting On at Birmingham New Street
In terms of tickets, I was already set up as I now have a free disabled travel pass. This allows those who have it to travel for free on trains and trams within the West Midlands network within certain times. The assistance booking process was the same as it usually is outside of lockdowns, I simply rang the phone line for that particular train company and requested my assistance at the specific date and time. They did have to make me a new account on their booking system though (even though I have booked a LOT of train assistance in my time) so I guess that shows that not all the booking systems are connected. When it came to actually catching the train, I arrived at New Street at least 20 minutes before departure )as instructed when I booked assistance), presented my travel pass at the entry gate and was let through by a staff member. I then made my way to the assistance lounge and made myself known to the staff. When it came time to get the train is when the difference in assistance due to COVID restrictions became more obvious as it was only me allowed in the lift and not the member of staff. Once we got to the platform, the member of assistance staff made a comment that the guard (who would have to disembark me from the train as Erdington is a smaller station with fewer staff) was not going to be happy about having to use the onboard manual boarding ramp. Whilst I’m sure that was just supposed to be an innocuous comment, it made me feel like I was being seen as an inconvenience for having to travel. BELIEVE ME if I didn’t have to travel in the current circumstances I wouldn’t be doing so, but the fact of the matter is I had to travel for work just like anyone else. Add to that the fact that helping disabled passengers is part of the role on the railways and well, if you can’t already tell, that comment bothered me quite a lot.
Onboard the train was the usual ‘board and back up into the wheelchair space’ situation. It was only a 15-minute trip so there wasn’t really time for anything dramatic to happen.
Disembarking & Leaving at Erdington
In the entire 15 minute or so ride to Erdington, the guard had not been to speak to me or check where I was on the train so I wasn’t sure what the process would be when we arrived. On arrival at the station there was no ramp or guard to be seen and generally no sign of any assistance arriving. To add to my anxiety, I found out that I could only barely reach the ‘open door’ button if I was forgotten and the train door did close. Knowing that and with previous experience, I reverted to my usual of yelling for assistance from the train door. When that didn’t seem to do anything I headed away from the door and back into the carriage to press the assistance button located next to the wheelchair space. When the guard did arrive to disembark me, he made a point of saying “you don’t have to press that (referring to the assistance button) you just have to WAIT” . This really bothered me again as no other passengers have to wait to disembark a train, that is only necessary because the railways are not entirely accessible and I require assistance. I was also worried about how long I’d be expected to wait as I’ve been forgotten on trains before so I know that ‘just waiting’ is rarely the solution.
Getting On at Erdington
When it came to making the return journey, I was using the same ‘ticket’ (my travel pass) and assistance booking as before so that was no issue. I arrived way earlier than the train I had booked assistance for as my interview ended earlier than expected. I then made my way into the ticket office to make myself known to the staff. However, I found that the office door was only able to be opened on one side and that side was not big enough for my chair to get through. That meant that a fellow passenger had to help and unlock the other door to allow me through, close contact which obviously isn’t ideal in the current circumstances. Getting my train was a much simpler process thankfully, I simply said which train I had booked assistance on and asked if could get on earlier train since I had arrived early. The staff member in the office (whose name I think was Richard? shout out to him anyway whatever his name may have been) sorted it with no fuss. He simply rang New Street to let them know what train I was originally booked on and that I would actually be getting the next train back to New Street, and then put me straight on the next available train.
Again I was only on the train for about 15 mins so there was no onboard drama.
Disembarking & Leaving at Birmingham New Street
On arrival at New Street, there was a staff member waiting on the platform with a ramp. That meant there was none of the disembarking hassle I’d had on the outbound journey, so I was able to get straight off the train and head home, just like everyone else.
I hope this gives some insight into what it’s like travelling on the trains as a wheelchair user during a national lockdown.
Em (Invincible Woman On Wheels)