Good afternoon! My name is Miriam Binder and this is the Grim Creeper also known as my wheelchair, or power-chair to those more technically inclined. We just get on with things and when my legs won’t bear the weight, Grim Creeper steps in and provides me with the trundle power to get where I am going. Well … that is the general idea anyway.
Grimmy and I are a couple of independent travelers. We don’t have a carer who, much like the famed ‘lepers bell’ from years gone by, comes along wherever we go. We do our own shopping, we collect grandchildren from school, we take grandchildren shopping for Mummys’ birthday present or, occasionally, that extra special pair of trainers Daddy said was not in the budget. And we go to London, Manchester, Birmingham, Chester and any other place we want to go.
As long as it isn’t St Heliers though … St Heliers is an unmanned station … one of quite a number, and an increasing number at that, that is out of bounds for the Grim Creeper and me. Sadly though it isn’t just unmanned stations that are an issue. Despite the Equality Act 2010 stating that transport must be accessible to all there has been little progress in applying this to Rail Transport. To date, as things stand, only 1 in 5 of all stations in the UK is fully accessible.
A couple of years ago I needed to get to Chester for a course I was to attend. It was quite a lengthy journey from my home in Brighton and so I planned ahead and made sure I contacted Assisted Travel well in advance of my prospective journey. In fact it was about a week or so before. As it happened, trouble started as soon as I arrived in Euston to get on my Chester bound part of the journey. I wasn’t on the list. Never mind, if I cared to wait someone would put me on the train. As an aside, no one saw fit to inform me that there was no refreshment trolley, that the wheelchair space was in full sunlight space with no room to move and that the canteen on the train was not accessible for lone wheelchair using travellers.
When we got to Chester, everyone alighted from the train and I waited for someone to fetch the ramp to get me off the train. The train started filling up with people London bound and I was still waiting. No one had seen fit to inform the driver, the guard nor the destination station that a wheelchair passenger was on the train. I had to push the alarm to avoid being returned to London.
In January of this year I had an early appointment in London. I was quite ready to take a late train to London and spend the night at Victoria Station to make sure I’d get to my appointment on time. No need I was informed by the helpful staff at the Travel Centre at Brighton Station. There is a train at 6:48am that will get you there in plenty of time. I duly presented myself at Brighton station at 6am. I was assisted on to the train at 6:40am. At 6:50am the train was full to bursting with commuters and we were informed that we would be diverted via Lewes.
I decided to get off the train but, due to a lack of ramps, and the fact that the cover to the alarm button was locked, I was unable to contact the guard. To cut a long story short, I spent 2.5 hours being dragged through Lewes, to Haywards Heath to a field half way to Three Bridges where we sat for about 15 minutes before being told that we were being diverted back to Haywards Heath where I finally managed to get off the train. To get a train back to Brighton having totally missed my appointment.
These are but two instances where the guard was effectively absent from the train as far as Grimmy and I were concerned. We were travelling on what, to all intents and purposes was a Driver Only Operated (DOO) train. I was nothing but a not very important parcel despite having paid my full fare. These two, along with a number of other instances over the years of travelling with Grimmy and her predecessors, made it clear to me that for travelers like me the proposal to operate DOOs on all Southern Rail was to be fought, tooth, nail and final breath, to the bitter end and beyond.
We’ve heard a lot about this ‘Assisted Travel’ and the ‘requirement’ placed on all ‘disabled’ passengers to book their journey 24 hours in advance of travel. If you were paying attention during my ramblings you will recall that I did indeed use Assisted Travel for my trip to Chester. Not because I am an aficionado of ‘Assisted Travel’ but because it was a lengthy journey, involving a number of changes and different train franchises – Southern and Arriva if my memory is not at fault. It did not ensure that my journey was hassle free.
Having said that, I can see the sense in using something like Assisted Travel when you are embarking on a lengthy and complex journey; however, and yes there is a however, this holds not just for us ‘impaired’ travelers but for all train travelers because of the complexities involving changes, different companies and the need to ensure that you know what platforms you need to be on at the various stations you will alight and embark from during your journey.
This is the anniversary of the fight to keep guards on the train; a whole year of strikes, upheavals and the occasional confrontation. As Southern has forged ahead and implemented the changes we oppose we have seen disabled travelers left on unmanned stations in their wheelchairs because there was no one to get them off the train at their desired destination. We have seen passengers getting caught in doors shut by drivers who are forced to rely on blurry and time delayed images on multiple screens. We have heard of yet another 33 stations, so far, that are going to be unmanned and part manned. Add this to what I said earlier … about only 1 in 5 UK stations being fully accessible in 2017 …
I am, apart from a pain in the neck, a mouthy female and the burden borne in style by my Grim Creeper, a mother, a grandmother, a friend and an activist. Things happen; my daughter in London may suddenly need Nanny to babysit her two gorgeous grandsons while Mummy works late. My friend in St Helliers may need my shoulder to cry on as her dog departs on his last journey. My pressure group ‘DPAC’ may need me to attend an emergency meeting with less than 24 hours’ notice. Or I may suddenly get a yearning to go and spend my hard earned cash in Littlehampton rather than Brighton Churchill Square. Or, shock and horror, I may suddenly cave in to the demands of my grandchildren and decide to take them all to Tillgate Park in Crawley one Sunday.
These are all normal, everyday issues that people face and … surprising as this may sound … so do we, the physically, mentally and cognitively impaired. Why should I, just because I happen to be impaired through no choice of my own, be required to forego on spontaneity because I cannot give Southern Rail at least 24 hours’ notice of my desire to indulge in some spontaneous activities; forgetting for the moment that there is something not quite right about spontaneous activity and 24 hours’ notice. My 9 year old grandson is doing something at school and wants Nanny to come and see him ‘oh and Nanny, it is tomorrow at 10am. Sorry sweetling, no can do as I haven’t the time to let Southern know?
Grimmy and I are fortunate. No one, seeing us, questions whether I am impaired. It is rather obvious. There are however many ‘hidden’ impairments that aren’t instantly recognizable. Mental health issues, cognitive impairments, various ailments that are accompanied with a variety of physical weaknesses … such as heart conditions, epilepsy and others.
I do recollect reading some guard … the name escapes me at the moment … who wrote that he had been told that it is cheaper for a franchise to pay a couple of million for the odd death then it would be to ensure that every passenger is as safe as can be during every single journey. Economically, I can see the argument works well but we are not crates of bottles, reams of paper or boxes of apples, all of which can be replaced given but time enough. We, as human and humane beings, impact on lives other than our own in ways beyond mere calculation. And that holds as true for the impaired as it does for the unimpaired.
Turn up and go is the principle behind the 2010 Equality Act. Turn up and go! With a straight forward journey, doing a normal everyday thing like commuting to work, taking a shopping trip, visiting friends or relatives, indulging the grandchildren or surprising a friend with a meal on the town. Turn up and go is the right of each and every single one of the over 10 million disabled people in the UK.
Just as a matter of interest, 19% of the working age population is disabled. That is over 6.9 million people. Two million people in the UK have impaired vision to varying extents. More than 900,000 people in the UK are severely or profoundly deaf. There are more than 45,000 deaf children in the UK; there are approximately 770,000 disabled children under the age of 16 … that is 1 child in 20 …. A huge number of people who all deserve to … Turn up and go!
When you attach a string of carriages to a powerful engine and send them all hurtling down a track from point ‘A’ to point ‘B’ you have a captive ‘community’ – I’ll use the term community even if the only thing they have in common is the fact that they are all on this locked down string of carriages hurtling down a track.
A duty of care cannot be ignored however much you may want to do just that. And to ensure that duty of care is implemented, every train should have a driver and a guard as a minimum. A driver should be allowed to concentrate on getting the train where it is going. And we, the entire railway traveling population, deserve, require and insist on the presence of a safety critical trained guard for our security, safety and welfare in travel!