Sheffield #Access #Fail by @Northernrailorg

Being a disabled traveller

I don’t often blog about the minutae of attempting to be a working person who uses various mobility aids in order to participate in society, but the response to a number of Tweets I sent out yesterday when I found myself in a labarynthine mess stuck between policy and prejudice that I regularly encounter in the public sphere. So here’s a snapshot of what it’s like for me to attend a meeting.

Going to visit Patient Opinion in Sheffield

I had arranged to go to the @PatientOpinion offices to catch up. I’m a big PO supporter, but haven’t previously been to the office. It’s only 35 miles from my door, so how hard can it be to go there for a meeting?

Problems encountered every time I travel

Firstly, I can’t lift the pieces of my scooter into the boot of my car. this means that to all intents and purposes, it’s useless to me. I have to go everywhere in taxis and on trains. I could use some buses, but the attitude of various drivers and the physical difficulty of getting into the approved space means that this option isn’t used at the start of a long day because it’s so exhausting.

So, I use my electric scooter to get from my house to the road. I can’t get down the hill outside my house without it. I used to rely on my manual wheelchair, but this wasn’t safe to self-propel down, and impossible to self-propel up. So I had to get a (fit and strong) person to do the pushing me up and down the hill. Which meant I couldn’t go out independently, for instance to work.

So, now I have the electric scooter. I use it in an “off-label” way to get up and down a hill that is far steeper than my OT head assesses as safe to use an electric scooter on, but I have limited options. The battery is being burned out fast, but it still keeps going, helping me to participate. I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.

First class is more comfortable for disabled people

So, I ordered train tickets for collection. I can’t comfortably travel in standard, so I often buy first class tickets if I can afford it. There is a critical few extra inches of turning circle in First that means its less painful to travel in a wheelchair or scooter. I see this as a good use of my DLA. So, instead of a £17 ticket, to Sheffield, mine is a £35 ticket (return). To be honest, I’ve had that many experiences of the system cocking up that where there is an option to be more comfortable, I’ll take the hit.

Leeds station

As I arrive at the platform to depart in Leeds, there’s clearly panic from the guy at the station, who informs me

“you can’t get on the train- you haven’t booked special assistance”.

“Don’t be so ridiculous. I don’t need any assistance except the ramp to alight the train, and I can drive unassisted up it. Please just put the ramp down and we’ll say no more about it. Please let the Sheffield staff know I’m on my way.”

(Only here I am blogging about it. Tsk).

Sheffield first #access #fail

I got to Sheffield (after a lovely Bacon Roll and cup of tea- thanks Cross Country Trains!) and unfortunately despite checking with both the guy on the platform at Leeds and with the conductor on the train, there was no-one there to provide the ramp that I need to disembark the train. Madly waving at passers-by and frankly anyone in the area, I attempted to make them aware of my plight. This is always really panicky, the sense that if one isn’t noticed, one will be soon headed off far away (in this case, to Plymouth).

The conductor on the train had come to check I had disembarked safely, and was as annoyed as I was to see I was still waiting on the train, hanging out of the carriage and waving like a woman possessed in the vain hope that someone would offer assistance. He offered to use the ramp within the train to get me off it before he was due to leave, rather than wait for the station staff. So that’s what we did. Problem solved. He did tell me he had phoned the station staff to tell them I was coing, but then so had the ridiculous man at Leeds station, and I didn’t know if either of them were being honest.

Visit to Patient Opinion

I was met by the lovely Dr James Munro of Patient Opinion at the station, and we spent a couple of hours chatting with the team. It was lovely. Sadly, it was soon time to go home. I was dropped back at the station by Dr James Munro, who wasn’t able to stay in the drop-off zone for long.

Sheffield second #access #fail

I went into the station, and went to the platform the train was leaving from. Phew, 15 minutes to spare. So, knowing how often this is the critical time to make sure arrangements are properly made I looked out for station staff and train staff. Sure enough, several staff were floating around, so I made sure that I politely informed each of the that I was expecting to travel on the next rain to Leeds, that I would need the ramp, and that here I am, sitting next to the ramp ready for someone to attach it to the train so i can alight.

Each person I spoke to insisted it wasn’t their job to attach the ramp to the train, but not to worry, because

“someone will be along in a minute”.

Now, I’ve relied on “someone” before, and let me tell you, they’re not very reliable. In fact, “anyone” could have attached the ramp to the train. It doesn’t require much training.

The train arrives, and I nervously drove the scooter in between the ramp and the train, all the time telling all the staff I could see that I needed someone to attch the ramp. Everyone was sure that “someone” would be along to do it. I felt that the time was approaching for the train to leave, and was on my phone. I could see the conductor and train staff get onto the train and close all the doors. Then, the train pulled away.

Sure enough, “someone” had failed to materialise and I had missed my train.

So, I went back to the information desk to talk to the staff about how this had happened, and what to do next. I showed them my First Class anytime return to Leeds. They were apologetic, but said that there was nothing they could do. I told them about the morning experience, too, but they said that the fault was with both Leeds station (who hadn’t phoned in) and the conductor on the train (who hadn’t phoned in). Complaint form number 1.

They advised me of the next train to Leeds, which was run by Northern Rail.

Sheffield third #access #fail

I dutifully went to the platform (this time with a member of customer service) only to find myself confronted by the train conductor.

“Sorry, I can’t carry you in the scooter. Company policy” he said.

“Really? I said, ” this sounds discriminatory? surely this isn’t your company policy?”

“No, we don’t *BAN* scooters. But we only carry folding ones.”

“Oh. I see. well, luckily my scooter breaks down into seperate pieces and fits in any car boot. So you’ll be able to take me?”

“Only if you can carry all the bits of the scooter onto the train and put them in the luggage rack yourselves”

“Really? so if I had a heavy suitcase you would offer me assistance, but you’re directly telling me you refuse to carry any bits of my scooter onto your train?”

“Yes”

So, we carried on with this pleasant conversation. I was becoming less pleased with the service from Sheffield and Northern Rail by the second. But there was no shifting this man, who was convinced that his company policy overrode any national or international law and obligation to people with mobility issues, quite apart from having a human response and just helping a traveller out.

Fuming, I went to the platform supervisors office. Having already filled out a complaint about the train that had left without me despite seeing me waiting for assistance, Ithought I would fill out another form for this experience. The supervisor was apologetic, but helpfully printed off a policy document from Northern Rail stating that they did not agree to transport scooters, unless the mobility impaired person carried them onto the train themselves. So the conductor had been correct in interpreting company policy, it was actually an official policy to directly discriminate against people with disabilities and mobility isues.

I was informed of the next train, and started to wait. I had some time to kill, so I thought I would also complain about the morning when no-one had arried to help me off the train. Having completed a hat-trick of complaints I felt it was time my luck should turn.

Sheffield fourth #access #fail

The train to Leeds arrived, thankfully a Cross Country service, and so I started up the train to board. The platform supervisor had the ramp set up into Standard. I asked him if he would mind moving the ramp as I had a First Class ticket and wanted therefore to travel in First Class.

“No, can’t do it love. There isn’t time”

“Yes there is. It will only take a minute- the train isn’t very long. I’m not paying for a First Class ticket and travelling in Standard. Would you ask a non-disabled traveller to do so?”

“You never showed me your First Class ticket. How am I supposed to know you wanted the ramp into First Class?”

*turns to customer service person* “Hang on, I showed you my ticket about an hour ago, did you not see that it was a First Class ticket?”

“Well, you cant go in first anyway. There’s already someone in the disabled spot”

“Is there? that’s unusual. Well, if thats true, well have to work something out. Let’s go and see.”

So we went down the train. the platform supervisor joined me, swearing and muttering all the way down the train in a most unfriendly manner. He obviously didn’t see the reason why I should not want to accept his kind offer of help into Standard and insist on travelling in First.

We got the ramp up, and I drove on to the train. Suprise, suprise, there wasnt anyone in the disabled spot. There was a whole family’s luggage in the disabled spot. The family memebrs startted to remove the luggage with guilty faces, avoiding eye contact with me, and placed it all in the luggage spot. I’m familiar with this from the people who guiltily come back to cars parked in disabled bays without Blue Badges. Only “popping in” to the shops and they get away with it. I dont know if they had refused to move the luggage and therefore the train operator had to offer me a standard space, or if they had simply not been asked to move the luggage despite the clear signage that the space was protected for people with disabilities by law. But, they were only “popping their luggage there” it’s not like it was going to impact on a disabled person, now is it? They were not reprimanded, or fined, or saw any consequence to their actions. No wonder the guilty faces.

So, for people wondering why you dont see so many people using wheelchairs and scooters in your local train station, in your workplace, in your church or social club, down the pub, out in town, taking their kids to ballet lessons, or cheering on their kids at football, how about reflecting on this journey and think about why that might be.

And also have a think about the planned reform of DLA and replacement with PIP. Large numbers of people who have mobility needs will not be assessed as needing any help on the basis that our country is now proudly accessible to all.

I can’t think of a better word to describe this than sick.

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5 Comments

  1. I had my first mobility dealings with Northern today, by phone, trying to make arrangements to go to a neurologist in Fazakerley. I use a rollator, a wheeled walking frame. There’s no network-wide policy about these (unlike, say, manual wheelchairs), so I always have to deal with every individual train operating company every time.

    First reaction of the Northern guy was to say it would just be classed as a piece of luggage. I pointed out the law, he went and spoke to someone more senior, and came back and just gave me assurances that it would be fine. Eventually I persuaded him to add something to the journey notes to say staff should make whatever reasonable adjustment is needed. This leaves me uncomfortable, but I couldn’t get any more out of them.

    Tomorrow, it’s the turn of Merseyrail, for the third leg of the journey. Virgin I deal with a lot, as they’re the operators of my local station, so they have a note about me on file, and treat me as if I had a wheelchair, and give me a seat as well as the wheelchair space, because there’s apparently nowhere else on the train they could carry the thing.

    Reply
  2. Railway Insider

     /  June 26, 2012

    Hi Claire,

    Firstly I am a rail employee so I wanted to give you a sense about the perspective from the other side of the fence. I am not an employee of Northern, nor an operator that serves Sheffield at all. I completely agree that you have the right to travel without stress and hassle. The absolute vast majority of rail staff are helpful and want to help, but unfortunately the Government has let us down, and it is primarily them you should be complaining to and not Northern.

    Firstly I want to talk about your experience at Leeds. Train operators generally ‘prefer’ passengers to book assistance in advance if possible, this isn’t to be difficult and it isn’t to put people off travelling, it is just to ensure that staff are on hand at the right time to help you on and off the train. Stations the size of Leeds can typically deal with in excess of 500 passenger assistance requests a day so its fair to say they are more than used to helping however The industry is currently trialing new schemes to make this easier and reduce the hassle on the passenger.

    Now Sheffield station is owned and operated by East Midlands Trains, not Northern, and they are responsible for coordination of passenger assistance at this station, it is disappointing that therefore there was noone to meet you off. I have no doubt that both the Northern and Cross Country employees did contact Sheffield to advise them of all your arrival and it is inexcusable that noone did meet you. However the on board guard is above all responsible for the safety of all passengers and that they disabled passengers alight at the correct stop, so by him letting you off using the ramp was doing nothing above and beyond what his/her job description says they are to do.

    Again its disappointing that nobody was able to help you on the first train at Sheffield – but once again the responsibility for this lies with East Midlands Trains – not Northern. They are on Twitter too as well as via the web – http://www.eastmidlandstrains.co.uk. As a last resort the conductor on the first train should have been able to use their ramp to put you onboard.

    Now onto Northern. The diesel trains they operate were built between 1984 and 1992. Unfortunately these are simply not built for the extra dimensions, weight and turning circle required by scooters and they unfortunately can’t be modified. Many of the trains have tight gaps such as http://www.gbrailwayworld.co.uk/TrainInteriors/DMU-Interiors/Class-156-Interior/i-tLZQcxq/0/L/156508-interior-L.jpg that scooters struggle to fit through tight gaps and many of the older trains have a step entrance like old buses and unfortunately the extra weight of scooters mean that the two part ramps can’t carry the extra weight. Northern make no secret of this on the National Rail webpage – http://www.nationalrail.co.uk/passenger_services/disabled_passengers/wheelchairs_scooters.html – and neither do any of the other companies who don’t accept mobility scooters. This is dissapointing I agree, but the control and ordering of rolling stock is controlled by the DfT, ie the Government. It is also them who have set the DDA deadline for trains as 2019, so they dont have to spend the money sooner in replacing rolling stock that isn’t suitable for scooters. Northern unfortunately can’t really buy trains themselves either, they cost in excess of £2.5m a carriage and is beyond the reach of company that already is heavily reliant on Government subsidy and on a limited time franchise. The call to replace this stock has to come from the Government, not the train operating companies themselves.

    As for the conditions and treatment at Sheffield, that firmly lies with East Midlands Trains and not Northern.

    Reply
  3. Chris Suddes

     /  June 26, 2012

    Great blog. Pleased you enjoyed your visit to Patient opinion. (I’m one of POs non exec directors) and I’m pretty appalled to hear of your problems with train travel. I’ve been a wheelchair user nearly 11 years and have had similar experiences whenever trying to use public transport of any kind. I drive everywhere that is possible and the thought of trying to use trains gives me nightmares to be honest. Airlines aren’t much better. The DDA in real life application is a joke I’m afraid. Keep blogging – something has to change and I’m afraid that until people start getting prosecuted for paying lip service to the DDA it’s only through voices like yours and through sites like Patient Opinion that any progress will be made.

    Reply
  4. JC

     /  June 27, 2012

    Hi

    I am asks a railways employee and I do work for northern AND I work thru Sheffield as well.

    The respondent above is right in that in places such as Leeds it makes it easier for the station assistance team of passengers do book in advance, but not everyone decides weeks in advance that they want to go somewhere so turning up on the day is perfectly acceptable. Everyone has the right to just turn up and go, whether you need assistance to board or not.

    The only suggestion I’d make there is, certainly at Leeds and other stations operated by Northern, just pop into the Customer Information Point on the main concourse (just between the White Rose and the Body Shop) when you get to the station and let them them know what help you need (I know you went to see the customer service team at Sheffield, but they are East Midlands and i cant speak to what they do or dont do). The staff in our Customer Information Point can then let the assistance team know and someone can be there to help, as technically speaking, the Dispatch staff aren’t trained and cleared to use the ramps.

    I know it’s not difficult to use, but it comes down to the staff member being shown how to do it correctly, then signing to say they’ve had the brief and then being insured to do it. If someone who isn’t trained to do it does it and does it wrong and hurts themselves or the person they are supposed to be helping, the ramifications are too great. But there are better ways to go about resolving the situation than the “it’s not my job” attitude that you experienced.

    Tho, like the railway employee above said, the guards are all trained in the safe and correct use of the ramps and so they could’ve done it.

    I’m not allowed to speak to the specific service you did, or rather didn’t receive from our colleagues at East Midland Trains in Sheffield, but I will go as far to say the service you encountered isn’t good enough.

    It is true that Northern can’t carry passengers who’s scooters don’t fold up. And it is for the exact reason stated above, our trains, being built when they were, we’re never designed to carry anything other than bog standard wheelchairs. And in fact, most of them werent even designed for those!!! but with some modifications we can now manage that.

    As a guard for Northern, that is one of the hardest things I have to deal with, the rare occasion where a passenger who needs to use a scooter that Northern wont aloow on board arrives at the train and I have to refuse them travel. And just to clarify a point, Northern (and other train operators) are exempt from some of the components of the Equalities Act until 2019 because of the cost of changing the fleet to be compliant. The DfT managed to squeeze that concession from the government before the Equalities legislation passed thru parliament, simply so they could say “oh look we’re all caring and sharing, but we won’t spend money to prove it”!!!

    But that together with the service across the whole day clearly hasn’t given you a good impression of the service the railway CAN and usually DOES give to passengers regardless of their assistance needs.

    And the issue with bags in the designated access area is one that continually winds me up. There is nothing more embarrassing for me as a guard than when someone comes to get on board and needs to use that area, but it is full of luggage or buggies.

    Thankfully, in a lot of our trains there is more than enough luggage space throughout the carriages to solve that problem. But whilst we don’t ACTUALLY have any way to fine people, I will tell them that we do and that is usually enough to make sure that the area is kept clear in case we need to use it.

    I hope this reply doesn’t simply sound like excuses to get out of what is basically a moral obligation, never mind the legal or contractual obligations train operators have when they sell you a ticket for travel.

    Reply
  5. I haven’t checked the final language of the EA2010 for a while, or the orders bringing it into force (by sections), but IIRC railway companies aren’t exempt from the EA in general, just the transport-specific bits of it. This means that the hard requirements of the EA for transport carriers aren’t in force, but the general requirement to make reasonable adjustments is.

    So people are right to say that they can, generally speaking, refuse to carry scooters if the adjustment needed to do so were unreasonable. If it might be possible for some scooters, but not most, even without folding, then they could still argue that it’s not reasonable to try to establish which will be okay – but that could be challenged. However, a blanket refusal to carry it on (once folded) if they would normally help with other luggage is very ripe for a challenge.

    However, to be very clear, they are, in general, still required to make reasonable adjustments, AIUI. That is just limited in terms of what is reasonable.

    Reply

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