Monday, 26 September 2011

Another Train Journey From Hell

- Or the nightmare of travelling with a disability when plans fall apart.

I’m just back from a visit to my family in the North East, it was good to see them, and the journey back was okay, if exhausting; it’s just a pity I can’t say the same for the trip up.

I always travel by train, the problems my disability causes with sitting mean I can’t drive for long enough to get there (or even to get out of town!) while coach journeys are just too long to tolerate (air travel too once you add in connections). Train seats are verging on the edge of intolerable, but at least I can limit the exposure, I just have to plan on not necessarily being able to do anything for up to a week afterwards. (1)

The plan was 11:24 from Chatham  to St. Pancras, walk over to King's Cross, get the 13:00 to Darlington, then pick up the local train to Bishop Auckland where my parents would collect me at 16:20. Planned elapsed time, about 5 hours. The saying is no plan survives contact with the enemy, but precious few survive contact with reality and this one was no exception.

I was having real problems walking at all even before I got to the station, reduced to a swing-through gait that uses my shoulders and crutches rather than my legs, and just glad I was travelling light with only a small rucksack, which meant I could use both crutches as opposed to having to tie one to a larger pull-along piece of luggage. My first thought on getting down the stairs to the platform was ‘There’s an awful  lot of people here’, the second thought was ‘Oh, shit!’ rapidly followed by a check of the announcement boards, which confirmed that we were still waiting for all three of the trains that should have come through in the last hour (and the antique boards only have room for 3 entries…). I was over 20 minutes early, so I thought at least I’d get to know what the situation was before my train was due, fat chance. The best I heard was a garbled announcement on the opposite platform that there were emergency track repairs happening somewhere.

11:24 arrives, no sign of my train. Five minutes after that we get the announcement that the train now approaching is the late running 10:28, it’s only going to Dartford, but anyone wanting any of a long list of London stations should get on and follow instructions at Dartford. St Pancras isn’t mentioned, and there’s no one on the platform to ask, while the booking office is back up a long flight of steep stairs (I’ve no idea how someone with a hearing impairment was meant to cope with all these instructions delivered solely over PA). This is a problem, there are three lines out of Chatham to London, the fast line to Victoria, the slow line to London Bridge and Cannon Street, both of which need underground trips to get to King's Cross, and the very new, very fast line to St Pancras, which is right next door to King's Cross. Taking anything other than the St. Pancras line might mean I missed my connection at King's Cross, but given there had been no mention whatsoever of the St. Pancras train, and everything else was over an hour late, I decided I had to get on and risk it; otherwise I might not get out of Chatham at all.

I’d packed really light, and decided that my hard collar didn’t make the cut as I’d only worn it a couple of times in the past month, and it isn’t exactly a convenient shape to pack. Purely on impulse I’d grabbed my soft collar because there was just about room for it in my rucksack. Within a couple of minutes of sitting down I was cursing myself, it felt like I’d been stabbed in the shoulder and I really needed the hard collar, the soft one just about stopped the situation becoming intolerable, but I wasn’t a happy bunny.

We crawled to Dartford, even stopping at some stations they had claimed we wouldn’t stop at. At Dartford several hundred frustrated passengers poured out of the train to announcements telling them that trains were waiting at platforms 1 and 2 and to follow the directions of staff. Platforms 1 and 2 were over a footbridge, with another set of steep steps, and by this time steps were the last thing I wanted to deal with, I was doing well to be vertical at all. There was a sign saying a lift was available, but with trains waiting and no staff member in sight I wasn’t certain I would make it if I took the time to find someone and say I needed to use it. So I struggled over the bridge, last one of several hundred, and yelled ‘King’s Cross?’ at one of the guards, who pointed me onto the Cannon Street train and said to get off at London Bridge.

I was no sooner on than the train was off, and needless to say the train was packed, with people standing everywhere, but someone stood up to let me sit down. Unfortunately it so crowded there was no room to take off my rucksack, which just served to amplify the pain coming out of my neck and shoulders. By this time the only thing stopping me from packing it in and going home was that the trip back would be just as much of a nightmare. The trip to London Bridge was another stopping crawl through every minor station in East London, finally getting me into London Bridge at about 12:35 – umm! I think I’ve been to London Bridge precisely once before, so I’m not exactly familiar with it, but I can navigate these places given time, unfortunately that wasn’t something I had a lot of. I followed the signs for the Northern Line, glad I didn’t need to use the Jubilee Line (‘Jubilee Line is currently not running due to a person on the track’). Now the signs were clear, the concourses wide and brightly lit, and I don’t recall any steps, but what I do recall is a walk from platform to platform that took me 10 minutes when I was struggling to stand at all. Of course I just missed one train, so when I finally got on a tube it was with 10 minutes to make my connection – not gonna happen! And I was right, we were a couple of stops short of King’s Cross when 13:00 ticked around.

Once at King’s Cross it was another 10 minute trek to get to the Main Line station – even if TfL are making efforts to make a token few stations accessible to disabled people the reality seems to be that they’re turning them into airport-like concourses that are inaccessible due to the distance to be covered even if step-free access is now provided. And is it really beyond the wit of man to put distances on the direction boards? A few hundred metres may not seem significant if you aren’t disabled, but if you are then knowing the distance may give you some indication of whether you can make it to a platform or need to ask for help.

At King’s Cross, the announcement board confirmed that the 13:00 had already left, so I squeezed through the crowd to the Information Booth to ask what I should do. ‘You need to go to the booking office,’ they told me, ‘you’ll probably need to buy another ticket’. Yeah, right. So I went to the booking office and found a nice long queue, with no provisions for disabled customers that I could see. When I finally got to talk to a booking clerk it was over a wide chest-high counter. I struggled to hand my ticket over to him with crutch attached to my arm, god knows how someone in a wheelchair would have managed. ‘You’ll need to buy another ticket’ he said, too bored to listen to anything I had told him. I pushed my voice up to insistent and pointed out I had done exactly what I was told and taken the only train running and it was his responsibility to fix it, not mine. So he grudgingly turned to his monitor and started trying to confirm what I had told him. After a couple of minutes he turned around again: ‘This is a St. Pancras ticket, it’s a different company, you should have got on the St. Pancras train’. Arghh! Which part of ‘I took the only train’ was he having difficulty with? Crank in another level of insistence and repeat the story for at least the third time… After a couple more minutes fiddling with his computer he decided that he needed help and went off to talk to a colleague; by this point I was hanging onto the counter just to remain upright and any more objections were going to be answered with a demand to 1) speak to his supervisor and 2) do it somewhere I can sit down. I was at the point I was seriously considering sitting on the floor. After several minutes of peering at on-screen logs of what services had actually run with his colleague he came back, pulled out a pad and ignored me while he started scribbling on a voucher.

 “You can get on the 13:30” he said, stapling it to my ticket and handing it back without really looking at me.

By this time it was after 13:20, just physically getting to the 13:30 before it left was questionable, which I pointed out to him, I also pointed out that I absolutely needed a seat, which isn’t always guaranteed on the East Coast Line.

 “You’ve got plenty of time!” he said repeatedly, oblivious to the fact I was wearing a collar, using crutches and hanging desperately onto his counter lest I fall over. It wasn’t just questionable whether I could get to the train in time, I also needed to phone family to let them know about the change of plans, didn’t have a mobile on me, and would much rather have caught the 14:00 at that point, but he clearly wasn’t interested and I couldn’t face arguing with him any more, so I headed for the train, trying to make the best of a bad situation. I did get there before it was due to leave, barely, but the train guard took one look at me and said I had better get onto the first carriage and walk through the train to Standard Class, she at least realised I couldn’t walk that far before the train was due out.

Fortunately there were plenty of seats for once and the journey up to Darlington was fairly straightforward, apart from the bit where I missed my connection there by 10 minutes, on a service which is less than hourly, and couldn’t phone my parents to let them know. I finally made it to Bishop Auckland at just before 18:00, my father having sat patiently waiting for me in the station car park for over an hour and a half. Three trains and five hours had become six and a half hours, four trains and a tube, none of them ones I should have been on. I had a quick bowl of soup, told my parents ‘I’m sorry, but I have to go to bed now’, and was in bed (shaking!) by 19:00, sleeping through until 08:00 the next morning. The only good side to it was that I slept the effects off, rather than being completely out of it for several days.

I’ve had train journeys like this before; it’s why I never go into London if I can avoid it any more. You can plan your journey around your abilities, but if things go wrong then you can rapidly find yourself in a situation where you don’t know where you are and don’t know whether the route to get you out of it is either accessible or manageable (two different things entirely). And then you can find yourself facing staff who clearly don’t have the first idea that someone with a disability may not be able to sprint for a train, may even face difficulties just in talking to them over a counter. I have this horrible feeling that TfL, Network Rail and the Train Operating companies are going to turn the Olympics, and particularly the Paralympics, into an embarrassing farce of inaccessible transport and tens of thousands of disabled people from all around the world who simply can’t get to where they need to be, and can’t get the help they need, because we have a rail system with Victorian levels of access, and Victorian levels of disability awareness in the customer-facing staff.

(1) Necessary caveat to make it clear to DWP that suffering through a train journey doesn’t mean my disability has changed!

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