Be prepared to be flabbergasted. You may want to have a mirror by you so that you can see exactly what ‘flabbergasted’ looks like. Because that is the expression that you will be wearing when you finish reading about my experience yesterday.
You must book assistance a minimum 24-hour’s before travel.
As with nearly all wheelchair travel, this requires a military level of planning. Not just the time of travel and the train on which you will be travelling, but how you will arrive at the station, what luggage you will be bringing and where you will meet the assistance representative , This kind of takes away any spontaneity from your day but seeing as it is quite normal to have to book your tickets in advance this is not terribly owner is.
But you would think that the fact that you have given this information means that it is going to be used to help ensure that you have the appropriate assistance during your journey.
Not necessarily so.
And I would go so far as to say it is generally not.
Yesterday I travelled with Chiltern Railways from London to Stratford-upon-Avon. I have done this journey many times and almost every time I have done it in the wheelchair it has been problematic.
Yesterday was a good example. When you call the assistance line, they do not tell you which train to take, rather they ask you which train you plan to take. This means it is completely up to you to verify that the station to which you are going to travel is accessible. There does not seem to be a system that flags up that the station you are intending to terminate at is not accessible. Shocked? This is just the beginning! There is also not a system for flagging up if there is not a way of flagging up if a dreaded railway replacement services in operation on the route. Railway replacement services are the bane of every rail travellers journey but for a wheelchair user they are particularly horrendous because the replacement bus service is usually not wheelchair accessible. So what are you supposed to do? If you haven’t checked your route before you travel and found out about the railway replacement service, when the train terminates and everybody is herded onto the railway replacement bus, you invariably cannot board it and, as if you were the 1st person that this has ever happened to, nobody seems to know quite what to do, and you get stuck in a Bermuda triangle of information being lost between train station staff, rail replacement bus drivers and the assistance telephone line. How is that level of shock now? Wait until you hear this. Once they finally accept that a taxi is going to be needed to take you to the onward destination, the local station is not allowed to book a taxi from a local taxi company. Only the headquarters of Chiltern Railway, based in BANBURY, is allowed to book a taxi, from a designated company that they use. The taxi then has to be dispatched from Banbury, repeat Banbury, to collect you. Generally, the time from arriving at the station to leaving the station is 2 to 3 hours. Hope you got a good book with you. And how is that level of shock now?
Anyway, back to yesterday’s fiasco. I booked my train which had a change at Dorridge. The person on the assistance booking line did not say anything. It wasn’t until I was at the assistance desk in Marylebone station that it occurred to me to check that the interchange at Dorridge was possible. Good thing I did because the assistance desk staff called up to check and it turns out… it is not possible. Something to do with the height of the platform and Dorridge being banned from using ramps. (I also encountered a similar situation when I was told that I could not get off the train at Warwick Parkway because the floor of the train that I was travelling on was too high for the ramp that they have at that station. I can understand this, if the height of the train floor is particularly high and the width of the train platform particularly short, then only a shortened ramp can be used, and it also has to leave space for the wheelchair to actually get off the ramp when it reaches the ground. The higher the train floor, the steeper the incline of the ramp. And the steeper the incline, the more risky the descent. There is some ruling about the maximum steepness that a ramp can be. Fair enough.) But isn’t this the kind of information that would you expect the assistance helpline to know? To have immediate alerts about when booking on their system? But no, I only found out about not being able to get off at Warwick Parkway when I was on the train, about 2 stops before the Warwick Parkway stop! Level of shock now?
So, just to summarise: assistance booking line does not know whether or not a station is wheelchair accessible. Assistance booking line does also not know whether or not an interchange is wheelchair accessible. You can only find this information out by contacting the station directly. But you cannot contact the station directly. You can only find out information indirectly by…talking to the assistance booking line.
Got that mirror handy? Look into it now. That is what flabbergasted looks like.