Lending a helping hand

14 April 2016

Most people take travelling by train for granted – they turn up at the station, get on the train, get off at their destination and don’t really notice anything in between on most journeys. For many disabled people, though, this is not how it works. Some can make familiar trips without too much fuss but for many even the shortest trip has to be planned carefully to make sure that it is possible. Today the Office of Rail and Road published figures on the bookings made via the industry’s Passenger Assist service, an Olympic-legacy scheme.

Huge strides have been made in station and train access in the last 20 years. Passenger Assist (to book assistance at stations and on trains) is great – when it works. Most rail companies recommend 24 hours’ notice for assistance although all promise to help, even if passengers just turn up unannounced– and why shouldn’t they after all? Other passengers don’t have to give notice.

Improvements to station and train accessibility (much more step-free access, facilities for hearing- or visually-impaired passengers, wheelchair spaces, universal toilets, priority seating, electronic information) have made rail travel by rail easier. Yet despite all these improvements, sometimes it doesn’t work as it should. Just one aspect going awry can wreck a disabled person’s journey: a broken lift, a missed piece of information because only audio announcements are available; a member of staff fails to appear.

We’ve done mystery-shop research into passenger assistance three times: in 2008, 2010 and 2013 we asked passengers with disabilities to make a series of journeys and to report back on their experiences – the best judges of a system being those who actually use it. In each wave of research, our shoppers reported some trouble-free journeys, some with a minor hitch and, sadly, several which went seriously wrong – with passengers either getting no help from staff to alight or being entirely unable to get off and being carried on to the next station, or when delays caused them to miss connections.

Booking help is relatively trouble-free but assistance delivery is still too inconsistent. Too many passengers still do not receive the service which they have booked. Uncertainty creates stress and failures undermine the value of investment to make the railways more accessible. There are areas of excellence but delivery is still very patchy in places – especially when planned journeys are disrupted. Continuous performance improvements across the whole delivery process are still necessary. “Progress made, but can still do better” remains our verdict.

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