The need to give 24 hours’ notice of travel when booking assistance on trains flies in the face of equality, says Helen Dolphin.
If you are a wheelchair user, or have another disability which means you need help to board a train, the current requirement is you need to give 24 hours’ notice to the train operator. Not only is this impossible, if you don’t know until a short time before that you’re travelling, but it also completely stops any kind of spontaneity. Some disabled people have reported that this requirement to book stops them travelling on the train as it is just too much hassle and a major barrier to being able to travel with equality and freedom.
What has always confused me about this requirement is it is only insisted upon for the outward journey and although you tend to be asked when you are coming back there is an understanding that you won’t know what train you’ll be on. However, it is when the assistance has not been booked that I have experienced the horrible situation of being left stranded on a train. This is in spite of the conductor phoning the station to say I’ll be on the train. So it seems if you’re not on the booked list there is a much greater chance of you being forgotten. However, it does show that train operators can in the main cope with a wheelchair user who has not booked their assistance.
Disabled activists from the campaigning organisation Transport for All are calling for the introduction of ‘turn-up-and-go’ assistance on the railways. Lianna Etkind, Campaigns Co-ordinator at Transport for All, said: “Requesting disabled passengers to give 24 hours’ notice to use the trains is discriminatory, outdated and must go. Turn-up-and-go assistance is a long overdue measure that will allow us to travel with the same freedom and independence as everyone else. Rail companies need to get a move on and make this happen. ”
Disabled travellers can now travel without pre-booking on the London Underground and London Overground after “turn up and go” was introduced last year. However, train companies still recommend that disabled people book assistance 24 hours ahead if they wish to travel.
The Commons Transport Select Committee and Transport Minister Baroness Kramer have urged train companies to end the 24-hour booking policy and allow disabled people to travel as spontaneously as everyone else. A recent Papworth Trust report also found that two thirds of disabled people would use rail more if turn-up-and-go assistance was implemented. The end to 24-hour booking is also supported by the peer and former Paralympian Tanni Grey Thompson.
As a train traveller who rarely knows when they’re travelling I often just turn up at Norwich station where I catch my trains. Fortunately I have never been refused assistance because I hadn’t pre-booked. However, this is a relatively small station with ramps on every platform but I personally do not think it would make much difference if “turn up and go” was introduced. However, I can see that it could be helpful if a station knew if a lot of disabled people were travelling on a particular day especially if they were all going to different places and staff had to be reallocated to help with the demand. I would therefore not completely scrap pre-booking as I know many disabled people like the security of knowing their help is booked but it should be optional rather than mandatory thus allowing disabled people to travel when they wish.
With the increase in use in mobile phones and apps there is also the scope for disabled people to easily let a train company know they are coming, so they can either be met at their taxi/car or met on the platform with a ramp. However, this could literally be 10 minutes before when you’re heading to the train station not 24 hours before. It would also save the problem of hunting for an attendant as they would already there waiting for you.
ATOC (the Association of Train Operating Companies) trialled turn-up-and-go assistance at several London stations last year, but have not introduced it. I have no idea why not as from my experience most train companies will be boarding disabled people who have not booked anyway. Considering the other obstacles many disabled people face when using the train, such as inaccessible stations, I sincerely hope that ATOC will look again at introducing “turn up and go”. This small policy change could make an enormous difference to disabled people and if for example we see the sun is going to shine tomorrow we can all get on the train and head to the coast without the worry of not giving 24 hours’ notice.