As the old slogan said, it's good to 'let the train take the strain', whether you're making a quick trip to a nearby town or travelling long distance cross country. Most towns and cities in the UK have rail links within and between them, offering a variety of speed and cost options for a planned journey. For a wheelchair user1 it is a useful mode of transport, but there are some extra things that need bearing in mind. This Entry aims to provide some hints and tips for planning a successful journey, based on this Researcher's personal experience. Please share your own experiences by starting a conversation at the bottom of the Entry!
There are several things you need to consider in advance of your journey.
Wheelchair users are entitled to apply for a Disabled Persons Railcard which gives you (and one companion) a discount of 1/3 off the price of a ticket, whether bought online or at a train station. The Railcard costs around £20 for one year (or about £54 for three years) so may not be worth buying depending on the length of your journey and/or the number of times you are likely to travel by train during the year.
Another thing to note is that wheelchair users who stay in their wheelchair while on the train can also get discount of at least 1/3 off certain tickets without needing a railcard - you must buy your ticket from a train station, though, and the discount is not usually applicable to the cheapest tickets.
Buying tickets a few weeks in advance may work out to be the cheapest option, depending on whether you have a Railcard or not, and you can book tickets online or by telephoning a train company. If you are buying tickets on the day, make sure you have enough time to pick them up before you are due to depart.
Another thing to consider when planning which tickets to buy if you need to change trains during a journey is to use the feature on the National Rail Enquiries website to specify extra time for changing trains. Not only does this allow you more time to navigate large stations, wait for slow lifts and make sure staff know you are in the station and wanting to continue a journey, it is also helpful in the case that your train is delayed, so you are less likely to miss the connection.
Before planning a train journey it is important to check how far in advance you are required to book assistance. Short journeys should only require an hour's notice, but train companies offering longer journeys ask disabled passengers to book assistance at least 24 hours in advance.
Booking assistance in advance means that the stations you will be travelling to can check whether they have wheelchair access or not, organise extra staff if necessary, make sure the wheelchair space on the train is booked and the space is suitable for you, and ensure that any other facilities are in place for your trip. You will usually be asked to arrive at the station 20-30 minutes in advance of your departure time to make sure everything is ready for your journey, and giving you time to alert staff if they haven't already spotted you.
You can find out how to book assistance on the train company's website, or by telephoning them. Some train companies insist that disabled people telephone (or use a textphone) to book assistance, but some offer the facility to book online, at the same time as buying your ticket. Online booking can be quicker and easier, but do take care to make sure your planned route matches the route the computer chooses - if it doesn't, you will have to telephone and advise the customer services representative that the computer couldn't find your journey so that assistance can be booked for the train(s) you will be taking.
Assistance that is offered includes: a ramp for getting on and off the train; help with luggage; and assistance with finding and getting to the platform, the lifts or the exit.
On the Day
If you arrive at the station at least 20 minutes in advance of your departure time, you have time to either confirm that your assistance is in place or, if the staff are surprised to see you, then there is time to get assistance sorted out for you.
The staff should advise you which platform you need, and assist you there if necessary. When the train arrives in the station, they will set up the ramp at the door to a carriage and help you to board the train.
If your train is direct, you can sit back and relax - the train manager will see you when checking tickets and generally will call to advise your destination station that you are on the train so that a member of staff can meet you on arrival.
If you have to change trains, the train manager will similarly advise your next station that you are on the train so that someone can meet you and assist you to find and board the next train.
On the Train
Different types of train have different types of wheelchair space. On long distance services, you will usually find a space with a small table and a socket for a mobile phone or laptop charger. On some long distance services, and most other trains, the wheelchair space is an area with fold up seats and a handrail or a pull-out table. An alarm button is generally situated nearby, which can be used if you need to speak to the train manager urgently (see the Troubleshooting section).
Similarly, different types of train have different types of accessible toilets in the carriages with wheelchair spaces in them. All the toilets have a handrail of some description, and there are alarm buttons at various heights in case you experience difficulty, but the cubicle may be curved or rectangular and have furniture layouts arranged accordingly. Note that trains designed for shorter journeys may not have toilet facilities for any passengers on board, though.
There are usually wheelchair spaces in both First and Standard Class. In First Class, the space is sometimes larger, which makes it easier to manoeuvre into, or more suitable if your wheelchair is larger than the railway's standard reference wheelchair. You will also get drinks and snacks brought to you by the steward. In Standard Class, there may be a trolley service, so drinks and snacks are brought to you, but sometimes there is a shop in another carriage. If passengers are expected to fetch their own refreshments, then the train manager may offer to bring you something, or you can ask for a drink when the train manager next patrols the train checking tickets.
Train travel is good, but sometimes circumstances arise that cause problems for all passengers, not just disabled people, and disabled passengers can face additional problems. There are solutions, and the first thing to remember is: Don't Panic!
Non-disabled passengers who see a disabled person unaccompanied by a member of staff and possibly requiring help may ask if any assistance is needed, but mustn't get upset if the answer is no.
Fire alarm goes off - if the fire alarm goes off and the station has to be evacuated while you are in the building, there are various options for wheelchair users and other disabled people, depending on the layout of the station. If there is level access to the platforms, you will be helped to leave the station with other passengers, but if you had to use a lift to access the platform, staff will advise you where the refuge point is and what action needs to be taken. For example, you may need to wait a short while for a train to pull in to the station to pick you up and take you to safety.
Assistance not booked as promised - if you arrive at the train station and the staff are surprised to see you, because they hadn't been notified of your assistance requirements, they should have time to arrange assistance for you at that station and they can ring ahead to your destination to advise them that you are on the train.
Assistance doesn't turn up - if you arrive at your destination and there is nobody waiting for you at the door of the train with the ramp, you should alert the train manager either in person or by using the alarm button by the wheelchair space. Fellow passengers are usually helpful at such times, as they will see you waiting forlornly in the doorway while they are wanting to alight from the train and can seek out a member of staff on the platform for you. The worst case scenario is that the train doors shut and you are taken to another station. Alert the train manager or other staff as soon as you can, and your journey should be sorted out so you can return to your intended destination.
Staff attitude - sometimes the staff will be in a bad mood, or just generally not keen on helping you, perhaps because they were not given sufficient notice of your plans or just because they are having a bad day. Being polite and apologetic generally enables this Researcher to get the help needed, but being assertive about requirements is important. The worst case scenario is that you don't receive assistance and your journey goes wrong, but then you should find another member of staff, explain the problem and what you need to continue your journey, and they will find a solution2.
People using the wheelchair space as a luggage rack - on long distance services especially, there is limited luggage space and passengers often think the wheelchair space is handy extra storage. When you are assisted on to the train, the station staff will usually check that the space is clear, and alert passengers to move their baggage if the space has been filled. The worst case scenario is that the station staff leave it to the train manager to sort out while the train is moving, but there are handrails in the vestibule areas so you will be safe, albeit not comfortable, waiting until the space becomes available.
Delays - if your train is delayed, the station staff will be aware of the problem and should meet you with the ramp when you eventually arrive. If you miss a connection because of a delay, the station staff will be aware of that, so they will help you to find another train and alert the destination station of your new expected arrival time. Train companies have compensation schemes to give you a refund proportional to the amount of delay you experienced, so do contact them after your journey to see what they can offer.
Train terminates unexpectedly - if your train terminates at a station other than your planned destination, then the station staff will be aware of the problem and will assist you to get off the train and find the next available train to your destination. They will ring ahead to your destination station to advise them which train you are travelling on so that they are expecting you when you arrive.
After the Journey
It is a good idea to send feedback to the train company (or the company you booked assistance with if your journey uses trains from more than one company) to complain if something went wrong, or to send praise if everything went well - you may receive a voucher for money off your next train journey, and you will certainly help the train company to improve their services for you and other disabled passengers in future.