Remember when we had an airport? It was called London Manston for a couple of wildly optimistic years. It needs a station, someone thought, so people can actually get here from London. It was to be called Manston Parkway. Oh, how we laughed.
When the airport went, the optimists still thought a station would still be a bright idea. So after huge amounts of public funding, more than £40 million, and much opposition – what was it FOR? – it got built.
Originally planned with no loos, no ticket office, and no staff, the first station to be built in Thanet in nearly 100 years was designed to be spartan and minimalist. And to welcome cars.
It opened to passengers in July, fuss was made about the missing elements, a lot of backtracking took place by Southeastern – toilets rapidly produced, state of the art ticket machines and a promise of staff to help out puzzled customers.
The station was launched officially on Friday 8th September with a huge shindig in the carpark involving a marquee, a choir, local kids’ paintings, free food, goody bags for all and the political elite of Kent.
Plus the transport minister, Huw Merriman, a name to conjure hobbits or at least Robin Hood, and bring a smile to everyone’s face. Except perhaps Craig Mackinlay, who introduced the minister as someone who had entered parliament the same time as him, but had scooted up the ministerial ladder, whereas Craig is still lingering at the bottom.
All the suits (only Thanet council leader Rick Everitt had the sense to take his jacket off in the sweltering heat) thought it would bring prosperity and business to east Kent and affordable housing.
They were all very proud of the station’s accessibility. My friend Hilary drove me there with sticks and wheelchair to join the fun and check out how good it actually is.
She parked me and the wheelchair in the shade and I talked to the minister about accessibility. He was very proud of how brilliant the place was for disabled people. Step free, everything sign posted, braille on the handrails and lift buttons, tactile paving “for way finding”, shelters, a defibrillator, a hearing loop for people with deaf aids. He was thrilled with it all.
I made some feeble joke about blind people finding their way after driving there but he forged enthusiastically on. A blind member of my disability group I spoke to later said it was all rubbish. How was he supposed to find the lift buttons if no-one took him there in the first place?
I asked Huw to try it all out in my wheelchair but he said he didn’t need to as he’d been shown it all by Southeastern experts. And anyhow he didn’t really believe in people sitting in wheelchairs if they weren’t actually disabled. So how is he ever to know what it’s like to be me?
We talked about policy and how policy makers could lay down rules about accessibility, but he seemed to think that was down to rail companies. But you’re the minister! I tried. Blank look. Frodo would have known what I was talking about…
Three days later me and Hilary went back. 5.30pm and the place was bleakly deserted. Toilets locked, only 20 odd cars in the carpark and the two passengers we talked to had been on a nice country walk from Minster and were on their way home to Ramsgate.
Hilary timed me walking from the lift to the designated access point where people needing help are supposed to wait. Three and a half minutes on sticks and over the textured paving and I was there! It’s a very narrow platform full of this tactile stuff (in theory for blind people) which my sense of balance found challenging.
And I can’t sit down in the shelters as the seats are narrow, low, slippery and sloping.
I tried the help points to ask about when the toilets would be open. I had to spell the name as the nice man in the call centre had never heard of Thanet Parkway. It’s new I suggested. New database to be consulted, yes there are accessible toilets.
But when are they open? You’ll have to ask customer services. Do you have a pen? No, I’m standing on crutches in an empty station. I’ll put you through. Minutes later: “I’m sorry that number is not available” says the machine. We laugh.
But the place isn’t a laugh. It’s bleak and unwelcoming and cost an enormous amount of public money at exactly the time they’re trying to cut staff, cut their wages and cut ticket offices.
You get the feeling that somebody somewhere is being taken for a ride, but it’s not going to stop at Thanet Parkway.
Christine is a founder member of disability campaign group Access Thanet