I haven’t had much time recently I write as I’ve been rushing around the country with my work as an equality and inclusion trainer, and much of that rushing has been done on the train. As a disabled passenger I have to face the constant fear that my journey will fail due to a mix up around the assistance I need to train by train. If you believe the news and media disabled people never have a good experience when using any form of public transport, and while we do all have many nightmare stories it is mostly getting better year on year. One of my major clients is Network Rail and I train their customer facing staff to give high quality assistance to disabled train users. I also have trained senior management on how to develop policies that ensure the needs of disabled passengers are at the heart of decision making within Network Rail. I tend to find my train journeys go fairly smoothly, but I have faced the usual issues. I’ve found myself on long journeys with no accessible toilet provision, I’ve been forgotten on trains when they terminate meaning I wait for ages to be gotten off and have even crawled out of a carriage, and have been stuck on a train as it leaves my destination station because no assistance has arrived.
So it’s with a happy heart that I can announce a good news story for disabled rail passengers that may make these events a thing of the past.
Last week I was lucky enough to be invited, by Paralympian and campaigner Anne Wafula-Strike, to the Rail Delivery Group’s London offices for a demonstration of their new Accessibility App. Within the rail industry there has been talk of this fabled app for many years, but it is now ready to announce to the traveling public. Hooray. With a final roll out time of autumn 2019, following a period where rail staff from every company involved in the UK’s rail network, this app does appear to be a real game changer for disabled people. The plan is for this app, downloadable for Apple and Android phones, to run alongside the existing assistance process, but also to allow rail staff to have access to all assistance requests in real time. So if you prefer to either use the phone or web based services to request assistance to travel you can, but the staff member will get the information about your travel requests on the app, via a smart phone or tablet. The new element for the passenger is how the app itself allows you to do everything on your phone too. It is also makes the process of Turn Up And Go much easier and more efficient.
The first innovation is that when you start using the app, you set up an account which then records all of your access requirements, meaning you never need to repeat them again. Any disabled rail user knows the frustration of repeating your access needs over and over, and then finding they have been noted down incorrectly. Once the app is rolled out you will be able to ensure your details are correct, and change them in real time too. You can also highlight your journeys and then request assistance. This is sent to the staff on the day of travel, after being checked and noted by rail staff. The true benefit is for people who cannot or do not want to book assistance in advance. You can get up, decide to take a journey and as you travel to the station or after buying your tickets request assistance, and it is sent immediately to the station you are traveling from and to.
During the demonstration, Anne Wafula-Strike and myself were very impressed. Anne stated “Although passenger assistance usually works, I’ve had awful experiences when it has failed so it’s great to see the rail industry addressing this and planning to change and improve for the benefit of disabled people. The app will make it so much easier to get assistance, and more importantly it will empower disabled people to travel without any fear. This is truly inclusion.”. Sarah Ward from Shrewsbury, who uses a wheelchair and has Asperger’s Syndrome, has been trialing the app since May and found it made a big difference to her experience of rail travel. “For me, the current system of booking assistance in advance is really frustrating. Whilst staff are generally really helpful, it’s not very flexible, and it often feels like I have to fit into the system, rather than the system working for me. With the app, I’ve found everything so much easier. It’s great being able to do things, on the spot, literally at the touch of a button. I think that the app provides a really positive step in opening up rail travel to disabled people. It has enabled me to be much more flexible with my travel plans, and it’s given me much more confidence in making journeys.”
Let’s hope that this is the beginning of a flurry of good news stories about disabled people and transport. I know from my own experience in the rail industry that there is a genuine desire to improve the service for disabled people and that this app will make it much easier for us all to travel by rail. If you are disabled and have avoided taking the train due to past bad experiences, the time may soon be right to dust off your hobo attitude and ride the rails again.