Have you booked assistance? These have to be 4 of my least favourite words in the English language (or any other language for that matter). Admittedly, train travel isn’t always easy for anyone at the best of times. I know that sitting in a crowded carriage with a load of strangers isn’t most people’s idea of fun. However, having a disability tends to add a little more of a challenge.
I’ve long been used to the requirement that you have to book a ramp and wheelchair space on a train at least 24 hours before you’d like to travel. This situation is not helped by the fact that someone, somewhere has decreed that having two wheelchair spaces per train is sufficient (one in standard class, one in 1st class). Although I’m normally pretty good at booking (I’m practically on first name terms with the Cross Country operators), yesterday I forgot. Even so, I made sure I turned up the obligatory 20 minutes before departure, feeling more than a little apprehensive.
As I came onto the platform, I spotted two other wheelchair users waiting for the same train. With something a sinking feeling, I approached the nearest assistant. After explaining the situation and admitting that I had committed the cardinal sin of not booking a wheelchair space in advance, I was promptly informed that it was likely the train guard would ‘throw me off the train’ even if they succeeded in putting a ramp down for me to get on. He then went on to say that the guard would not move the train until I got off, before adding rather unnecessarily, ‘it’s health and safety, he’s not going to risk his job for you, is he?’ In response to my suggestion that maybe throwing someone off a train simply because they happen to use a wheelchair perhaps wasn’t the best approach, he bluntly stated ‘those are the rules’.
What if there was a ‘rule’ that only 2 people of a certain race could travel on a train at any one time? Or a by law which asserted that only two foreigners were able to travel on a train at once? On second thoughts, maybe I shouldn’t give UKIP any new policy ideas… Seriously, though, it was one of the most unpleasant and degrading conversations I’ve been forced to have. There was somehow a free wheelchair space but it had been helpfully blocked up by luggage. I know that wheelchair spaces on trains to make great luggage racks but they actually make even better spaces for wheelchairs.
As it happened, the actual crew on the train couldn’t have been more helpful and helped to move all of the luggage, but the attitude of the man at the station had added unnecessary stress to what was supposed to be a fun day watching Aston Villa (before you say anything, I’m aware that ‘Aston Villa’ and ‘fun’ don’t often appear in the same sentence). Even then, the drama wasn’t over yet. Just as I’d begun to think the worst had passed as I settled down to reading Harry Potter on my Kindle and enjoyed the biscuits which had come about from my surprise upgrade to 1st class, a lady approached me. Without a word, she dumped her inexplicably large suitcase right at my feet, ingeniously placed to completely block my exit. I quickly explained the situation to the very helpful guard who moved the monster suitcase, although I did get extremely evil looks from the lady involved for the remainder of the journey.
All of the anxiety caused yesterday was totally unnecessary. Wheelchair users should be able to be as spontaneous as anyone else. The worry over whether or not you will be able to board a train could be easily avoided if more train companies had seats which flipped up and could be used as wheelchair spaces when necessary and regular seats when not. Casually explaining to someone that they face being removed from a train because of their disability is offensive and wrong. Secondly, people need to realise that luggage does not belong in wheelchair spaces (the clue’s kind of in the name). I’m still going to travel by train and I do really appreciate the staff who were especially kind yesterday. It’s just that I’d rather wheelchair users were always treated as welcome passengers rather than a nuisance or just a ‘health and safety risk’.