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Wheelchair user was 'left on the train for 20 minutes': has accessibility on trains improved?

Carrie-Ann says rail operators need to be clear about the assistance they can provide Photo: ITV Border

There has been an increase in the number of people with disabilities who are choosing to use the rail network to get around. There has also been an improvement in the accessibility of rail services and train stations.

However, many people with disabilities still experience challenges and difficulties with using public transport and still feel there is a lot more that needs to be done.

Carrie-Ann Lightely works for an organisation called Tourism for All, which helps disabled tourists with personalised holiday and travel information, as well as holiday and travel companies improve their accessibility.

She also has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair. Her work requires her to travel from Oxenholme station down to Manchester often and she opts to use trains, although she has faced a number difficulties on them, including being forgotten about and left on a train for up to 20 minutes:

  • Watch the special report aired on ITV Border News at the end of this article
Carrie-Ann often uses trains for work Credit: ITV Border

I have, before now, a couple of times been sort of left on the train at a terminus station, there’s sort of two ways of looking at that. I suppose the good thing is the train isn’t going anywhere else, so you’re not going to end up 200 miles from your destination, but also if you’re on your own, sat on a train, there’s nobody else there, it’s very quiet, you know, that’s quite scary actually.

And that’s happened for as long as sort of 20 minutes.”

– Carrie-Ann Lightely, Tourism for All
Anne Wafula Strike and Samantha Renke have shared their unpleasant experiences using trains Credit: ITV Border/PA

Award-winning Paralympian and disability campaigner Anne Wafula Strike recently shared how she was forced to wet herself on a three-hour journey because the train didn't have an accessible toilet.

Actress and disability campaigner, Samantha Renke, also shared how she experienced difficulties getting to her reserved space and not being able to use a toilet on a two-and-a-half hour journey, because the only accessible toilet was blocked.

Both feel there is still a lot more to be done to allow disabled passengers to feel included and safe.

Some main concerns shared by commuters with disabilities include:

  • having to book assistance 24 hour or more in advance
  • being forgotten or left on the train
  • not having a conductor on hand to assist them during the journey
  • no space in the designated wheelchair area
  • being enclosed by luggage
  • accessible toilet not working
  • not having access to the accessible toilet
  • being placed right by a smelly toilet and excluded from other passengers
7 in 10
disabled people would use trains more if they didn't have to book in advance - Papworth Trust.

The rail industry says the increase in people with disabilities choosing to commute is in part because of its improvements over the past couple of decades, but it also understands that more needs to be done.

One rail operator has introduced disability awareness courses for members of its staff to take, in order to help them provide better assistance to its customers who may need help.

Managers at TransPennine Express, which operates in the north west and west midlands of England, say they hope it will also get people with disabilities more confident with using trains.

There’s lots of customers out there that aren’t travelling by train that probably would do if they felt more confident that they were going to be looked after.

And what this course is designed to do is give our people the skills, the confidence and the really positive attitude they already have to go and approach people who might need a little bit of help.”

– Rich Holliday, Learning and Development Manager at TransPennine Express
TransPennine Express staff members wear assimilation goggles as part of the disability awareness course Credit: ITV Border

The course includes staff working their way around a station wearing special goggles that simulate various types of visual impairments. Momentarily putting themselves in the shoes of their disabled customers, they hope it will help them provide better assistance; although they stress that it does not mean they "know what it feels like to be blind".

It is part of the operator's wider £500million programme gearing up to the rollout of their new fleet of trains. They also plan to build lower ticket desk counters, improve disabled toilets and add hand railings and ramps at a number of their stations.

Carrie-Ann agrees that having staff who better empathise and understand needs of people with disabilities can lead to progress in the help provided.

She says train managers or conductors are particularly important, as she realised when one manager helped her through what could have been a very unpleasant journey:

I travelled by train down to London and one of the difficulties is that there was a lot of luggage in the wheelchair space despite the fact that there’s signs everywhere that says don’t put your luggage here. It’s priority for wheelchair users.

And I ended up sort of penned in by lots of suitcases. It was the train manager on the train in particular that was able to move suitcases around and help me, otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to use the toilet at all, in what I think was a two-and-a-half-hour journey, so that would’ve been quite difficult.”

– Carrie-Ann Lightely, Tourism for all

A number of rail operators have shared the possibility of introducing driver-only trains, axing the role of train conductors, which has led to an ongoing dispute and strikes organised by the Rail, Maritime and Transport union affecting a number of operators including Northern Rail, at Southern Railway, Merseyrail and Arriva Trains North.

Passengers who consider themselves vulnerable are also worried about their safety onboard should there be no conductors to assist.

Many disabled commuters still feel excluded Credit: ITV Border

Almost every time I use the train, the train manager would come and introduce themselves, make sure I’m okay, ask me where i’m getting off so they can call through to that station, make sure that they’ve received my assistance request and even just something as simple as getting me a cup of coffee from the shop as I’m not able to get it myself.

So I would really struggle to travel with confidence without a train manager or conductor onboard.”

– Carrie-Ann Lightely, Tourism for all

TransPennine Express say they agree that customer service providers on trains are important to keep.

So there’s one conductor per train, but we also have customer hosts onboard who do our refreshments and look after customers and do customer service. They’re also on hand to help disabled customers.

We’ve got station staff in place as well, who help customers navigate the station, get on and off services, find the right train – and all that can be booked in advance.”

– Charlie French, Transport Intergration Manager, TransPennine Express
Disabled commuters are required to book 24 hours or more in advance for guaranteed help by many rail services Credit: ITV Border

The issue of having to book in advance means people who require assistance are unable to embark on a spontaneous train journey, unlike other passengers.

Reserving assistance means I have to have everything planned before I go anywhere, and there's not a lot of room for manoeuvre if things change. If I want to get an earlier or later train, it depends on availability of staff and wheelchair space on the train."

– Carrie-Ann Lightely, Tourism for All

Carrie-Ann has experienced problems with TransPennine Express's online booking assistance option, in which assistance for her train journey wasn't confirmed, despite her booking it two days previously - 24 hours more than what was required.

Charlie French, a manager at TransPennine Express, said the national booking system does have its limitations.

[Book in advance so] you can get your reservation means the staff know that you’re coming there can be on hand and ready to greet you.

As a business we are looking to reduce that notice period. It’s a national booking system that we use. It does have limitations.

– Charlie French, Transport Intergration Manager, TransPennine Express
Carrie-Ann says progress has been made, but more needs to be done Credit: ITV Border

Carrie-Ann believes people with disabilities would feel more confident travelling on trains, just by seeing more of others like themselves...

It is about having enough information in advance to know that this is going to work for you and will be suitable. I think the more people see other disabled people travelling, out there enjoying their lives and using these services to go to holiday and to go to work, the more people that will naturally give confidence to."

– Carrie-Ann Lightely, Tourism for All

Campaigners say the industry could continue seeing a rise in disabled commuters if steady progress is continued to be made by rail operators, though many say rail operators still have a lot to do to make their disabled passengers, like Carrie-Ann, consistently feel included and safe.

Watch the special news report by Simisola Jolaoso below: