Back in September I got a new job. As well as the usual trepidation anyone gets with a new job, this one has the extra element of having to commute into central London by train. This is something I’ve never done before. Four months on, I’m able to assess how accessible the commute is as a disabled person. I’m a below knee amputee and have spina bifida too. I walk with a pronounced limp and find walking any distance painful and tiring. I also use a walking stick to assist me.
My commute is in two parts, the initial part is by train from Milton Keynes to Euston and the second part is by London underground from Euston to Victoria.
Depending on the time, I have a choice of train companies to get between Milton Keynes and Euston. Before 0715 Virgin Trains stop at MKC and after that it’s London Midland services. In the evening there are no Virgin trains to MKC from 1643 until 1843. The Virgin trains all take around 35 minutes and the London Midland ones vary from 30 minutes to over an hour, depending on the number of stops. As a result of this I usually end up getting a Virgin train to work and a London Midland one home. As this is a busy commuter route, all the trains are crowded.
Several things stand out from my experiences.
People seem to be unaware that a walking stick is used to help you get about and keep your balance, not just for show. On several occasions I’ve had my stick kicked or knocked away by people pushing past me to get on the train. Luckily I’ve not fallen over yet but I’m sure it’s only a matter of time.
There’s no way to guarantee a seat as a disabled person. London Midland don’t do seat reservations at all and you can’t easily reserve a seat on Virgin Trains when you have a season ticket. It was only through complaining about seating issues to Virgin via twitter that I found a mechanism for getting reservations, however this does require 24 hours’ notice, which doesn’t always work as the demands of my job mean I can’t guarantee when I’ll finish work.
Theoretically London Midland trains have priority seating for disabled people but this relies on me asking whoever is in the seat to vacate it, something I find hard to do and if they refuse there’s not a lot I can do about it. Speaking with London Midland customer service, they suggested that I contact the train manager to ask them to vacate instead. In practice, finding the train manager is impossible. On several occasions I’ve walked the length of the train and not been able to find them at all. This is not only tiring but as the train is usually so crowded, I’ve tripped over a number of people. There are always people standing on these services and I’ve had to stand on several occasions, something which leaves me in pain for a couple of days after.
Virgin aren’t much better, especially as they no longer have priority seats according to the train managers I’ve spoken with. Their suggestion was that I commute using a wheelchair as they can get people to move from the wheelchair spaces. This would be fine apart from having to find somewhere secure to leave the wheelchair as the stations at either end and I’d also have to pre-book assistance to get on and off the train. This has to be done 24hours in advance and would be for specific trains. This isn’t much use when my job means that I can’t guarantee which train I’ll be catching.
To make matters worse, three of my possible trains home in the evening are in the top ten most crowed trains in the UK running at between 148% and 201% of capacity according to Department of Transport research carried out in October 2013.
I have tried using the mobility assistance service. If I was an occasional traveller, this would be great as it would take me to the train and I wouldn’t have to trek across the station. However, the nature of the service means it’s not much use for the commuter. It has to be booked at least 24 hours in advance and for a specific train. My job means that I can’t always predict which train I’ll be catching so I’m unable to book in advance. You also have to arrive at the assistance point about 30 minutes before the train you have booked for. While I understand that this enables them to deliver their service more effectively, it does add 15-20 minutes a day to my commute. This service doesn’t guarantee a seat either so the negatives outweigh the positives.
It’s not all gloom and doom on the commute. On the tube there are clearly marked priority seats for those less able to stand. On nearly every journey I’ve had a seat offered to me by the person in one of these seats. The people offering the seats are all races, genders, ages and classes. There’s no ‘type’ of person more or less likely to offer a seat than any other in my experience. The staff at Euston in particular have always been really helpful too. The only times I’ve had to stand are where the tube is so crowded that people can’t see that I need a seat and there‘s no point struggling through the masses just to get one as a couple of stops on, there’s usually space. Despite my initial fears, the tube has been surprisingly accessible.
All in all there seems to be very little provision for the disabled commuter (as opposed to the disabled rail traveller) and the customer service people I’ve spoken with, while very willing to help, have little or no actual help they can offer me. On a couple of occasions it’s even been suggested to me that it’s my problem for choosing to travel during peak periods. I find this particularly annoying as I should have the same options as to when I work and travel as anyone else. I’ve worked hard to move on in my career and to make a living and situations like this make it much harder than it needs to be. This isn’t a dig at the people working for the train companies as most of them have been as helpful as they can be in the circumstances, just that the way the organisations and systems are run makes it effectively impossible for them to provide any practical help.
All I want is a system that makes it possible for me to travel to and from work with minimal added physical pain and as flexibly as any non-disabled person. It’s 2015, the initial Disability Discrimination Act was passed on 1995. Surely in those 20 years something should have been done about this?