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I was forced to crawl onto the train after assistance failed to turn up.

Blog by Dave McQurik. This blog and its content reflect the views of the author only.

I’ve been commuting into central London as a wheelchair user for 19 months. For the first 15 of those I was commuting from Milton Keynes Central into London Euston. Not being able to get on the train or having to wait to get off was a reasonably rare occurrence. Then in November 2016 I moved house and started commuting with South West Trains from Farnborough Main to Waterloo.

As I had done before, I phoned the Disabled Passenger Assistance Line and booked assistance for my journeys to and from work. I arrived at the station and let a member of station staff know I was there and made my way to the platform to await assistance. The train arrived, the assistance didn’t. I couldn’t see the guard so stopped the doors from closing with my good leg. This led the guard to come and investigate why the doors weren’t shutting and he found me. He got the ramp out and I got on the train, only delaying it by 5 minutes or so. There was assistance at the other end either responding to my booking or the guard had phoned ahead. I shrugged my shoulders and put this down to teething troubles with travelling on a new route. Over the next few weeks I found that this wasn’t teething troubles, this was standard service. After complaining to the train operator I found out that my station isn’t technically staffed, with one individual covering four stations so they may or may not be there depending where they’ve started that day. Apparently the booking for assistance was meant to go to the guard due to work that train in question and they were meant to be looking out for me however there wasn’t actually a mechanism within the train company for this to actually happen.

Over the rest of November and part of December I got on the train occasionally with the assistance of the station staff when available, train crew and most frequently, the assistance of fellow passengers who have lifted me and my wheelchair onto the train. But on a few rare occasions I have had to get out of the chair onto the train on my hands and knees and then pull the chair onto the train behind me. I still have to get to work and as the train heads off to Portsmouth 9 minutes after arriving at Waterloo, I need to get off or spend the morning being carried around southern England against my will.

All these issues arise despite my booking 24hours in advance, it doesn’t even touch on the shameful service Disabled people receive when they need to travel spontaneously. Many are left trapped on freezing platforms for hours before being able to access the train

I made a point of complaining in writing and via Twitter every time this happened and eventually I was contacted by the manager responsible for the stations in the area I was commuting from. An interim ‘solution’ was reached. They arrange for a taxi to pick me up from my home address and take me to Woking, the next properly staffed station on the line and then bring me home at the end of the day. This sounds fine in principle and would ensure that I’d get to work each day however, due to the roads involved and the traffic in Woking this would add 15-30 minutes to each journey. Frequently an extra hour to my commute each day. This went on for a month and a half before I was informed that they had ‘solved’ the problem and I was to go back to travelling as usual from Farnborough and either the station staff or the train crew would get me on the train.

That was in mid-February and it’s been a mixed result. The new system has worked about 60% of the time but I have had to get myself on and off the train a few times. The train crew have been good at chasing up why they weren’t informed through their management and also have put up notices in their mess room reminding each other to look out for me on the services I regularly use. The customer service staff and the stakeholder management team are also aware and have asked me to contact them every time things don’t work so they can find out why. While I appreciate this effort, I do wonder why in 2017 it still takes all this effort just to get on a train to go to work. I have to catch this service daily to travel to work like any other commuter, I cannot always turn up an hour early to allow for their regular assistance failures. The vast majority of individual members of staff have been helpful and understanding and tried to make the systems work but it seems almost impossible.

I’m an articulate, confident regular traveller and I still have this incredible stressful ‘will I, won’t I’ worry every morning. I can only imagine how hard it is for the occasional traveller who doesn’t know how the system works and doesn’t have the mobile phone numbers of a number of managers across the company.

Everyone knows commuting is difficult, tedious and subject to disruption and delay but I can put up with that, it goes with the territory. What I find infuriating is the difficulty, delay and uncertainty that I face just because I’m a wheelchair user trying to use the railway network like anyone else.

Take action for Rail Access at London Bridge on 5th April 2017

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