At the launch of Thanet Parkway Station I had the pleasure of meeting Mark Borney, general manager of South Eastern. And he had the pleasure of hearing me moaning on about not feeling confident about taking trains any more as a wheel user.
He said he knows they’re not perfect but please give a try to the disabled help they offer.
So I did!
We have family in North London I haven’t seen in three years of covid then post operative disability. We’d missed a much loved aunt’s 93rd birthday so going to see her was our priority.
We worked out that I could scoot and Norman could walk from St Pancras to Islington, with no recourse to buses (which I’m still scared of) in less than an hour as long as it was a fine day. Scooters don’t like rain.
“Get to the platform 20 minutes early and we’ll meet you there”, says a nice booking lady on the phone.
11.30, half an hour before the train was due, I’m at Broadstairs station. No help in sight, and toilets, including disabled, locked. I think about giving up and going home. But along comes our train, a jolly man jumps off bearing ramp and I scoot onto the train and put myself in the wheelchair spot, just down from the “accessible” toilet
Three bikes in the other wheelchair space opposite so no room to manoeuvre. When two of the bikes get off four pushchairs with little babies arrive! They are also supposed to use the space near the accessible loo – when I went I had to clutch Norman and two prams to get there on sticks. It felt really hazardous.
In London, no ramp! A fellow passenger said she’d alert the staff. A ramp arrived after the train was empty. Makes sense but highlights to me the perils of wheelies travelling alone. (I may have found myself on the way back without Norman and the fellow passenger.)
Next hold up, the lift to street level. It’s the only way down from the platform apart from an escalator which of course I can’t use.
Three prams, a bike and a huge suitcase. I try to get in with the bike. Impatient lift slams its doors onto my knee. I burst into tears with shock and swear embarrassingly horribly. Bike man looks miserable but gets me in and out again.
Once out- phew! we make our way to Islington. The traffic is nice and slow in London now and the pavements in Camden smoother than Thanet.
A delightful evening and morning coffee with old friends and we’re off again. Thanks to the September sunny spell, scooting back to St Pancras downhill is easy.
But the lift puts me in a tizz again. Not functioning. Big queue, more bikes, no staff as they’re all upstairs. In panic I ring the disabled helpline. “Ask a member of staff”. I despair, but she goes off to make enquiries. Then the lift decides to make an appearance holding five puzzled people who’d been taken to the lower floor and stranded there. Relief!
On the platform lots of helpful people get ramps and guide me onto the same spot by the accessible loo.
Then a million people also get on – 2.37pm on a Friday, has rush hour changed its nature? Good thing I went for a wee in St P! Although did have to wait ten minutes while a young lad apparently had a shower. The disabled loo was DRENCHED! Not good for sticks as they slip easily on tiles.
Before Broadstairs a lovely girl turns up with a ramp. “Does the driver know you’re on?”
“Am I supposed to tell him?”
“Don’t worry, I’ll rush up and tell him when we get there.”
I’m so near home I’m thinking if I finish up in Ramsgate, we’ll get a taxi. (The scooter dismantles into boot).
But all was well. Home safe and almost sound – bruised knee and poor Norman now has covid, developed three days after that crowded train journey.
My conclusion? Lovely helpers, but so much can go wrong. Why, first all, are trains so inaccessible? Why can’t platforms be level with train entrances? Why can’t new stations be designed with long ramps as the main platform access, rather than lifts and escalators?
And why bung all the bikes, prams and wheelchairs in the same spot?
I’m afraid some of my disabled friends have called me brave for even trying it all out, and now with covid on the rise again, vulnerable people may not want to take even more risks.
But the main point is that the train companies are trying to get rid of staff, but what’s needed is MORE people helping everyone, not just the scared wheelies. And don’t we need more people to use the trains and buses and cut carbon use?
Christine is a founder member of disability campaign group Access Thanet