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A Wheelchair User’s Experiences on Southern Rail

Blog by TfA member Chris. This blog and its content reflect the views of the author only.

I’m a wheelchair user. For many years I have had really terrible experiences trying to travel on Southern Rail from my home station to Victoria and back.

Whilst the Southern Rail staff at my home station are normally friendly, helpful and professional, Southern Rail staff at Clapham Junction and Victoria have caused me endless problems.

On roughly two-thirds of my journeys, when I arrive at Victoria there is no one there to assist me with a ramp, even though the staff at my home station have phoned ahead to let Southern Rail staff at Victoria know. So I end up stuck on the train.

On one such occasion, the driver closed and locked the doors, with me still inside. I had no way of getting out, or of summoning assistance. It was a frightening experience.

On another such occasion, I complained to the member of Southern Rail platform staff at Victoria who eventually turned up to give me assistance that I had been waiting for twelve minutes. She did not apologise, in fact she argued with me rudely and aggressively that it had not been twelve minutes.

It can be very difficult to find Southern Rail platform staff at Victoria. They are often hiding away in their booths on the platform, when they should be out and about on the platform, looking for people who need support or assistance.

Often these staff at Victoria do not inform staff at my home station that I’m on my way and will need to be met, and assisted with a ramp. So once again I end up stranded on the train, propping the doors open with my footplate, shouting for assistance or pressing the red emergency button.

Pushing the red emergency button often enrages the driver, and one driver told me over the intercom “We are trying to GET somewhere“, as if the delay was my fault! Well, I was trying get somewhere too – off the train!

The Southern Rail staff at Clapham Junction once rang ahead to my home station to let the staff know I was coming, even though they were fully aware that the lift at my home station was out of order – I didn’t know about that -, and that I should not have been put on the train at all – instead they should have helped me plan an alternative journey.

The same staff at Clapham Junction specialise in really unpleasant levels of rudeness and unhelpfulness. When I ask for assistance they refuse to make eye-contact or even to speak to me at all. They have often refused to put me in the wheelchair space.

Ramps, taxi policy

Many Southern Rail staff have no idea how to deploy a wheelchair ramp safely and correctly. On one occasion, while I was coming down a ramp, it collapsed off the train with a huge crash. I was uninjured but badly shaken up. Each ramp has a label on it saying exactly which type of train it can be used on. These labels are totally ignored, so that staff often use the wrong ramps. This can be very dangerous and can lead to serious accidents.

When assistance genuinely can’t be given, for example when a lift is out of order, Southern Rail promises to supply a taxi to cover the journey, free of charge. But this promise is not all that it seems. It can take between one and two hours for the taxi to arrive. This is particularly annoying when there is long queue of taxis outside the station waiting for business – but Southern will not pay for us to use one of those vacant taxis. It has to be a taxi from the particular company with which they have an arrangement.

Complaints system

It’s no good complaining to Southern about all this. Their complaints system catastrophically unfit for purpose, and it can take many months before I receive a response to a complaint – that’s if I’m lucky enough to receive any response at all.

I have met up with senior managers from Southern, including the accessibility manager. They are friendly and charming people, and have enormous good will. But they are unable to monitor or control their staff.

So the annoying incidents just go on and on repeating themselves. The catalogue of negligence and incompetence which you have read a few samples from above grows and grows. Southern Rail really does not have any commitment to enabling disabled passengers to travel with the same freedom, safety and flexibility as everyone else.

Transport for All has been a great support to me during all these unpleasant incidents, and if you have any problems with your journeys on Southern, or indeed on any mode of transport, please do contact Transport for All, who will take up your case with the transport providers and help you fight for your right to travel: contactus@transportforall.org.uk / 020 7737 2339.