Baroness Sal Brinton writes…Disabled rail travel: We’re not just treated like second class citizens, we’re treated like packages

Link is Very Friendly to WheelchairsWhen people in wheelchairs meet one another, disabled travel experiences are a frequent topic of conversation. Rail, buses or taxi we have often encountered brilliant helpful staff, but frankly, sometimes appalling service.

My train commuter run to Parliament from Watford Junction to Euston is usually very smooth, with unfailingly helpful London Midland and National Rail assistance staff, but both stations are staffed for as long as trains are running. Unstaffed stations can be really patchy.

I tend to find that problems tend to arise with the lack of safe systems to prevent individual staff messing things up. In the last 6 months that I have been using a wheelchair full time I have experienced the following:-

  • Last Sunday, returning from the Scottish Lib Dem Conference in Aberdeen, I was  left on an empty train on an empty platform at midnight at King’s Cross for over 15 minutes before I spotted someone on the first floor, and waved furiously to get her attention;
  • Refused permission on to a pre-booked train, because rush hour commuters rushed on the train ahead of me, and the train conductor didn’t want to move the commuters and risk being late – even though she watched them barge past the National Rail guy with the ramp and me;
  • Often been taken off the train by the conductor because the station staff weren’t notified I was on the train;
  • Having to be transported off the end of a rail platform, across the rail lines and up the other side, because many of our stations, even on main lines like Brockenhurst on the  London to Bournemouth line, don’t have lifts;
  • And been told by Complaints Dept at First Capital Connect that  lifts at Luton aren’t on the capital works schedule for some years and it is also  acceptable not to have lifts there because they are available at Luton Airport station;
  • Wheelchair spaces in new trains tend to be beside the toilets, which is great, but not when they are smelly, or worse, out of order on long journeys.

One of the regular conductors on my work journey says she always writes on her hand if there’s someone needing assistance on her train, just to prevent her forgetting. She now always checks her hand as the train arrives at their station. Brilliant! Train Operating Companies need consistent systems like this.

The position for the walking disabled is patchy too, often relying on fellow passengers to help, either by moving out of Priority disabled seats, deigning to move their bags off a seat, or with train staff seeing someone with a walking stick trying to get to a train (where there has been 2 minutes notice of which platform it is on) and not waiting for them. I have been reduced to tears when  I’ve watched the train sail out in front of me, or people have just been belligerent and not moved to give me a priority seat, even though I was using at least one walking stick.

Visually impaired people report  that the bobbly paving can be patchy, as it isn’t placed on all platforms consistently.  This is dangerous, as it is a blind person’s guide to the edge of the platform.

Radio 5Live had a programme on this yesterday, when I recounted my experience from the previousSunday night at Kings Cross of being left on the train. I was really pleased to hear Transport Minister Baroness Susan Kramer saying that this sort of service is absolutely unacceptable. People with disabilities should not be at the whim of systems, old rolling stock, or worse inefficient staff. You can listen to the programme here.

I was less pleased to hear that the train operating companies are already lining up to ask for exemption from the disability access regulations, which say all rolling stock must be fully accessible by 2020.

How long will it take before people with disabilities can access the rail service in the same way as everyone else?

* Baroness Sal Brinton is President of the Liberal Democrats. She is a working Lib Dem peer, and was the candidate for Watford at the 2010 and 2005 General Elections.

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  • Graham Martin-Royle 7th Apr '14 - 4:02pm

    How long will it be before disabled people can use ANY service in the same way as anyone else? This is an important point, we may be moving in the correct direction on these matters but progress appears to be glacial and far too often the needs of the disabled are just an afterthought.

    There is also a very pervasive attitude of selfishness coming to the fore in society, shown by your examples of people barging in front of the person with the ramp and refusing to give up their seats for those who need them more. This can also be seen in the attitudes of motorists who continually obstruct pavements and ramps making life difficult for those with disabilities. I think it is this attitude that we need to concentrate on changing because otherwise, with the best will in the world, people will still treat those with disabilities as second class and matters will not improve.

  • Sadie Smith 7th Apr '14 - 4:31pm

    As an occasional user of Rail Assistance, though not a wheelchair use, there are oddities:
    My experience has been that women are brilliant at it, men a mixed bag;
    Weekend, particularly Sundays, have a less good service;
    At some stations the service varies Ilkley has been very poor, Durham and Exeter have both been excellent.
    No one seems to build this into renovation of Stations (interesting journey along a road from the part-finished New St Station in Birmingham to the moved taxi rank).
    It really should be fairly simple to get this right.

  • Maria Pretzler 8th Apr '14 - 1:49am

    This is a really bad state of affairs.
    The absence of lifts and ramps is, by the way, a nuisance to everybody. There are far too many stations which are almost impossible to navigate for a healthy person with a piece of heavy luggage, let alone somebody in a wheelchair. I always have a feeling that the UK is a long way behind a number of other European countries on this.

    One aspect of the actual travel service I have observed is just how little information they manage to pass on from station to station. Just a few days ago I was in a carriage (which, I think was the carriage with the special designated wheelchair space in that train). A woman was helped onto the carriage in the most friendly manner. But at her destination station, nobody came to collect her. When I went to shout for somebody, the people with the ramp were waiting three carriages further along and apparently neither thought to look for her in the carriage with the extra space, nor had at least started to look for her when they didn’t find her in the other carriage. If you already have to pre-book, how hard can it be to keep the destination station informed about the whereabouts of the person they needed to help off the train?

  • Pat Stokes-Smith 8th Apr '14 - 10:00am

    So sorry to read this Sal. I had hoped things had moved on much more since I worked with disabled students in the seventies. We took them to the local post office to collect their Mobility Allowance so they wanted to use it. At the time Jimmy Saville (oh dear!) was advertising access on trains for disabled people, so we though we’d try it. It turned out that we had to give at least 24 hours notice and they would have to travel in the goods van. I recall at the time saying “They’re being treated like parcels”.

  • Sue Henchley 13th Apr '14 - 11:45am

    A friend of mine is visually impaired and reports similar problems (and examples of good practice) The designated helpers often do not realise the importance of the VIP being in the right seat when they are going to need to change trains. The member of staff coming to help them will go away if the seat is not in use and the VIP cannot see that they are looking for them because ……they are visually impaired!

  • Sal Brinton asks — “..How long will it take before people with disabilities can access the rail service in the same way as everyone else?”

    To provide some context to that question go back 40 years and ask yourself how much things have improved in that time.

    My first job with the Departament of Health in the early 1970s was all about wheelchair users and wheelchair supply. For a brief period I worked directly with the Disabled Living Foundation speaking to groups on amongst other things promoting accessibility — including accessibiity to public transport.

    Since then some things have actually got worse — railway stations have far fewer staff on platforms (do railway porters even exist any more?) and tube stations are losing their last remaining ticket office staff having previously lost all iticket collectors and platform staff so that tube staions have become empty machine ridden wastelands (if you can even get to the platform in a wheelchair in the first place!).

    All this has of course been done in the name of efficiency and cutting costs (the free market is so wonderful is it not?).

    So when Sal or anyone else attempts to travel independently on a train or a tube – the likelihood of being stranded on a train for 15 minutes at Kings Cross or any other station without seeing a human being to help is much greater now than it was in 1975.

    So when Sal Brinton asks — “..How long will it take before people with disabilities can access the rail service in the same way as everyone else?”
    I have some bad news for her. Whilst members of parliament persist in propping up Thatcherite economics, it will not get better for people in wheelchairs — it will get worse.

    The great thing about wheelchairs is they are very democratic. Even a President of a political party gets the same treatment. Even a member of the House of Lords can get stuck on trains if they are in their wheelchair. Life is tough with a Thatcherite Government — do something about it or stop complaining.

    Sal Brinton, if you want things to get better you should stop voting for the Government and the political philosophy that puts money first and people second. Stop voting for the Government that is making things worse for people in wheelchairs.

    It is not rocket science — it is wheelchair science !

  • R Uduwerage-Perera 18th Jan '15 - 11:18am

    Dear Colleagues,

    Hate crime against those regarded as disabled is horrifyingly on the increase, but in reality this is not new, but somehow we have chosen recently to ignore its existence.

    Many people will know of Pastor Martin Niemöller’s poem “First they came for…” relating to the horrors of the Nazi regime 1933-1945:

    First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—

    Because I was not a Socialist.

    Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
    Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

    Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
    Because I was not a Jew.

    Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

    The reality was that actually amongst the very first who “they came for”, were those who were deemed as disabled, and it was through the murder of those deemed as physically and mentally unproductive that the Nazis regime perfected its killing technics that were to be used later in the Holocaust.

    We would benefit from remembering that throughout these murderous times, ‘good people’ stood by and watched, and did nothing to stop either the early verbal and physical attacks, and then ultimately the killing.

    I would suggest that as a society our moral courage, has sadly not significantly increased, and this is why we must not forget the lessons of history, for they are as Sal has identified relevant today.

    I wish to thank Sal for having the courage to share this horrific experience with us, for in doing so she has become an immensely positive and influential role model.

    Ruwan Uduwerage-Perera
    Ethnic Minority Liberal Democrats – Vice Chair

  • R Uduwerage-Perera 18th Jan ’15 – 11:18am

    If you read through what you have written there is an obvious political conclusion.

    If members of the House of Lords had spoken up for those trade unionists like the late Bob Crow, the general secretary of the RMT, when he was struggling to protect the jobs of station staff we would not be in the position we are now where Sal Brinton finds herself on a train with no platform staff to help her out.

    Pastor Niemoller was absolutely right. They came for the trade unionists and too many Liberal Democrats in positions of power looked the other way because they were not trade unionists.

  • R Uduwerage-Perera 18th Jan '15 - 11:57am


    Your have chosen to use the quote to support your viewpoint, which I am not opposed to, but is not the issue that is being discussed at this time and in this thread, and I believe that you will find your train is currently ‘standing at a different platform’.

    10/10 for deviation though, and as a trades unionist myself, I would be more than happy to discuss the view in a new thread.

    Ruwan Uduwerage-Perera
    Ethnic Minority Liberal Democrats – Vice Chair

  • R Uduwerage-Perera 18th Jan ’15 – 11:57am

    Ruwan, I do not understand. What do you mean when say this is not the issue under discussion? It is exactly the issue.

    Powerful people such as presidents of political parties and members of the upper house of Parliament have the opportunity to make things better. If they vote for and support a Government which is making things worse for people in wheelchairs they should expect things to get worse for people in wheelchairs.

    If that is not the topic under discussion here — what is?

  • R Uduwerage-Perera 18th Jan '15 - 7:00pm

    @John Tilley “If that is not the topic under discussion here — what is?”

    I would suggest ‘hate’ and ‘intolerance’ is the issue on this occasion, although in another forum I would support the matter about the unions.

    Ruwan Uduwerage-Perera
    Ethnic Minority Liberal Democrats – Vice Chair

  • Ruwan

    I think you have got the wrong end of the stick. People who happen to be in a wheelchair do not have problems using public transport because of a hatred of people in wheelchairs.
    There may be indifference, or thoughtlessness, or gross stupidity and ignorance but not hatred.

    Please read the comment above from Hywel Owen Davies 8th Apr ’14 – 10:43am

    He points out how the staff and the general public are fantastic but still he sometimes gets stranded.

    This is to do with the organisation and mainly the funding of public transport. If you move constantly downwards to an ever meaner destinatiom of Thatcherite free-market economics the concept of service and society are ever diminished.

    Instead of being “passengers” we have been re-designated “customers”. Instead of station staff we have machines.
    Instead of paying people to do decent jobs serving the travelling public our governments just cut back and sack and to hell with inconvenient people in wheelchairs. Thatcherite philosophy has an inbuilt aversion to public provision and service to the wider community.

    The attitude of the Thatcherite is that in the free-market people in wheelchairs are free to pay for a chauffeur driven limousine . If you cannot afford a chauffeur driven limousine. — tough. That is free-market economics.

  • John Tilley,

    The idea that the difficulties facing passengers with disabilities on the railway are the result of evil Thatcherite free market policies is stretching the point.

    There are three factors at play:

    1. Infrastructure. Some stations/ trains are unsuitable. They are (gradually) being improved/ replaced. The process could be speeded up – if considered an appropriate priority.
    2. Organisation. Systems should be in place – are they robust enough? Probably not.
    3. Individual incompetence/ idleness. Nobody should be ‘abandoned’ on a terminating service. The entire train should be checked after arrival. Somebody isn’t doing their job properly.

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