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Tuesday, 18 February 2014

The truth behind First Capital Connect “Special Assistance”

The UK is one of the richest countries in the world; we live in a society where we have freedom of speech, where we are “free” to travel where we like when we like. Many people in 21st Century Britain commute on the train and nearly everyone at some point will have travelled by train. The ease, the simplicity of hopping on a train whilst it takes you to your destination when you hop off again enjoy your destination for as long as you like before deciding which train to take home. That is, of course, unless you are disabled when the situation is very different. 

This blog post will focus on First Capital Connect as that is who I use most frequently but it could easily apply to any other rail company as the situation is the same across the rail network. 

What they tell you about special assistance

They rail companies (in this instance First Capital Connect) tell you to ring their special assistance booking line 24 hours in advance and you will be guaranteed special assistance on your journey . The proviso is that you “make yourself known to a member of staff at the station when you arrive”.  The special assistance booking line will take your name, phone number and details of how you intend to arrive at your destination station and leave at your arrival station. They tell you that if you book special assistance you are guaranteed special assistance.

In an ideal world what should happen

You arrive at the train station and as you approach the barrier someone says “oh hello, you must be *Insert name* and you’re off to *insert destination*, your train is going from platform x do you need a hand getting over or can you manage to this yourself” *Insert reply* “Ok, I’ll meet you over there and I’ll have the ramp ready for you”. The member of staff will stay with you until your train arrives and ensure that you are waiting in the correct place on the platform to line up with the wheelchair space on the train. When the train arrives the member of staff will ensure that the designated space is free from obstruction, luggage and/or ignorant passengers, put the ramp down for and help you on. They will then say “don’t worry about the other end *Insert station* know you are coming and they were will be someone to help you off.” On the train if it is a Class 377 train (the more modern trains) the disabled call button will be opened up so if there is an emergency the passenger can contact the driver.

The reality is very different.

The Special assistance phone line:
I have been genuinely shocked by this service in the past especially what they can’t tell you. All this service does is put your details onto a central system so that “control” know you are travelling and a record is kept for statistical purposes. They do not tell individual stations any of your details, stations are just told that there is a disabled passenger coming on that day and this is rarely filtered down to platform staff. They cannot tell you whether the lifts are working at a particular station, they cannot tell you what platform a certain train is likely to be travelling from, and they also cannot tell you what classification of train it is i.e. whether or not the train will have a disabled toilet. These are all details disabled people may need to know before travelling on a train. In the past I have asked them to ring a particular station to ensure they know of an arrival but they cannot contact platform staff only the ticket office.  

On arrival at the station:
I have found out on various journeys (and by talking to staff members) that stations are not informed that a disabled person is coming and travelling through their station. You have to “make yourself known to a staff member” because once you get to the station you then have to request special assistance.  Platform staff also has no idea where you are going, so you have to tell them and they will then ring your destination so they know you are coming (they won’t have been told either).  A lot of staff don’t take the time to put passengers in the correct space on the train, especially with the 319 class (older trains) as it is not immediately obvious where the space is so they either put you behind the driver or in the nearest space to where they are standing. I will say not all staff members do this; there are some who genuinely take the time to do it properly. First Capital Connect say that platform staff are trained in how to board disabled passengers, going by many experiences, this is either not true or the training isn’t very good.  Platform staff then rings your destination station to let them know you are on the train, and again this doesn’t always happen. 

On the train:
Class 377 trains (the newer ones) are far better for disabled people as they have a proper area and a disabled toilet but sadly they are prioritised for commuters and rarely used off peak and at weekends. The picture below is of a covered emergency call button, platform staff are supposed to unlock this so it forms a table and an emergency call button. I have spoken with several disabled people about this and most didn’t even know what it was, First Capital Connect will tell you that it is opened for disabled people, it isn’t and I have never seen that happen. 

 On the older trains (class 319) there is a smaller space with folding bench seats, this area does not always have signs to indicate that this is an area for disabled people. Disabled passengers are often put “behind the driver” (even if this is not the suitable location) for safety, I have queried this and been told that in an emergency a member of staff needs to help the disabled passenger hence being behind the driver. When you raise the question of the disabled area being in the middle of the train in newer 377 trains, they mention the call button (see above). 

Getting off the train 

The idea of “special assistance” is that once you have been boarded onto a train there should be someone to meet you at the other end, anyone who is disabled and has travelled by train will tell you that this is a lottery. There is not always someone to meet you at the other end, social media is awash with stories of disabled passengers having to crawl off trains with their wheelchair, or being found by cleaners as they have just been left on a train. Personally if I have to travel on my own I choose a train that  has its final destination as my destination so I won’t end up at another station, if I can’t travel on such a train I ensure I am travelling with someone else who is able bodied.

Why book special assistance?

First Capital Connect say to guarantee special assistance you have to book. I have to admit I don’t always book 24 hours in advance, this is because I don’t always know what time I will be returning. If I am going out for a day trip somewhere or a meal out in an evening, it is impossible to predict how much fun I will have (or not) and I may want to stay later or come back earlier (as anyone would). As I have already said, booking special assistance doesn’t actually “book” anything it just creates a record, and it makes no difference to your journey, in the evenings many stations only have one platform assistant working even at stations that serve international airports (Luton Airport Parkway) and booking special assistance does not increase staffing levels. So why book Special Assistance? So you have grounds to complain, it is in fact a pointless service. 

Why blog about this? 

I am sick of it happening to me and to other disabled people, when you complain to First Capital Connect nothing happens. In the past I have complained to my MP, in reply I received a letter of apology from First Capital Connect and was given free travel on the journey of my choice.  I don’t want free travel, I don’t want an apology, what I want (and what every disabled passenger wants) is for the system to work properly and the changes to be made so it does work properly. When I tweet First Capital Connect they refer me back to the Special Assistance helpline which, as already discussed, is useless. Some people may see this as an opportunity to attack the rail unions, to be clear on this issue I know for a fact that the RMT campaigns on increased access across the railways and would like an end to Driver Only Franchises (of which First Capital Connect is one) so there is a member of staff on board every train to help.  I have spoken to many staff (usually the ones wearing an RMT pin badge) and they blame the system, many of the staff are hardworking, considerate and would agree with me about the system not working. Without them talking to me I would not have the information I need for this blog. It is time we opened up access to the railways so disabled people can travel as easily as able bodied people. 

I would welcome the opportunity to discuss this with First Capital Connect the issues raised but this has never been offered and in fact I am told that I am wrong and politely sent on my way.