MIRIAM BINDER says travelling is a nightmare for disabled passengers – and it’s getting worse
GRIMMY — my trusty wheelchair — and I are a couple of independent travellers.
We don’t have a carer who, much like the famed “leper’s bell” from years gone by, comes along wherever we go.
We do our own shopping, we collect grandchildren from school, we take grandchildren shopping for mummy’s birthday present or, occasionally, that extra special pair of trainers daddy said is not in the budget.
And we go to London, Manchester, Birmingham, Chester and any other place we want to go.
As long as it isn’t St Heliers though; St Heliers is an unmanned station. That is out of bounds for the Grim Creeper and me.
Despite the Equality Act 2010 stating that transport must be accessible to all there has been little progress in applying this to rail transport.
To date, as things stand, only one in five of all stations in the UK is fully accessible. Southern Rail have announced that there will be a further 33 stations where help with access will no longer be made available, even if you call Assisted Travel with at least 24 hours’ notice.
Southern are closing ticket offices, decreasing the number of staffed stations; increasing the number of stations that have their staffing hours reduced.
In Central Worthing don’t bother looking for station staff after about 9pm. And with larger stations increasingly becoming like malls with shops and various eateries as concessions and without ticket offices, accessibility depends entirely on being able to use complicated computerised ticket machines.
Further, it depends on you knowing exactly where you are going. I am far from stupid but I’d be hard put to figure out how to get to Nether Wallop for instance on those push-button machines. So don’t try to get to an unknown location.
The situation for disabled passengers was already bad enough but, sadly, it’s only going to get worse.
Until January 2017 we were assured of a safety-critical guard as a second member of staff on trains on every journey.
Southern Rail’s determination to massively reduce the number of guards on the train through introducing driver-only operation (DOO) is about to make the situation worse — which is why disabled people have been fighting against it from the outset.
DOO trains have now become the norm — 3,000 services per day (60 per cent of our total number of trains) now rely on drivers using multiple grainy images on a bank of screens, with a time lag, to inform them when to shut the doors.
One driver told me that if he sticks his hand out of the window and then pulls it back in, he can still see his hand on the screen 2.5 seconds later.
Time enough for someone to fall down the gap, a hand or piece of clothing to get caught in the doors or a piece of baggage to get left behind.
That is bad enough but the worst for me, and other vulnerable, disabled or temporarily ill passengers, is the removal of the safety critical guards.
These trained individuals are vital when you travel in an enclosed metal tube at break-neck speed hurtling down a track. They know every station on the line.
They are there to provide security for passengers being harassed by others. They are there if you have a heart attack, an epileptic seizure or need any other help.
They have been replaced by onboard supervisors who do not always know the line they travel on. Their training is largely restricted to operating the ticket machine they carry on every trip.
Southern Rail has already stated that it will not ensure an on-board supervisor’s presence on each and every journey.
As a disabled traveller, me and Grimmy are required to announce our intention to travel at least 24 hours in advance. No more spontaneous travel for us.
No more Right to Ride. No more Turn Up and Go!
What Southern Rail and other railway operators going down the same course are doing is slowly removing their responsibility and accountability to passengers, their safety, security and freedom to travel.
Wheelchair users are being stranded on stations because there is no-one to get them off the train at their destination; passengers are being dragged along with a train leaving a station due to getting stuck in the doors.
Having to choose between letting the train leave with your children on board or leave your luggage on a platform. All these incidents — and potentially worse ones in the future — are due to DOOs and no second safety-critical member of staff on trains.