Travelling with a hidden disability

18 January 2023

As someone who’s been shielding from Covid for the past 1000 plus days, the thought of travelling by train is a daunting one. 

More than half a million people in the UK with conditions that affect their immune systems are still shielding. As one of those, I’ve been anxious about returning to ‘normal’ life including travelling on public transport. An auto-immune condition affects my physical abilities, but to look at me you wouldn’t see my condition.  

My new role at Transport Focus gives me the opportunity to test some of the physical challenges when travelling post-pandemic. A first visit to our office in Manchester presented me with an opportunity to use both my local Merseyrail and regional rail services. 

So, what was the verdict? The impression is that the world’s forgotten about the pandemic and carried on with normal life. Indeed, some of the conclusions from  2021 Transport Focus report Accessible transport: unlocking a better normal certainly still ring true. 

So, let’s talk about access, trains, and stations. Access to my local Merseyrail train is still a high step up into the carriage, making me nervous I’ll lose my balance. New trains are on the way (hopefully in 2023) and promise level access from the platform. Passengers have helped inform part of these changes for Merseyrail trains. They can’t come quick enough for me! 

Accessible seats were readily available, the carriage was well ventilated with about 20 per cent mask wearing. Even at peak morning travel time there was minimal standing and crowding. It’s a good start. 

The intercity service is a different kettle of fish. Cancellation of a previous service means a scrum to get a seat, but I manage and hunker down fully masked to see just how busy it will get. Mask count on this train is about one per cent and as the journey progresses, we get to full cramming mode. I’m distinctly uncomfortable about how close people were to me. Exiting the train also provides me with some worries. As a slow mover it was a real challenge to get to the doors for my stop.  

Access at local stations was good with flat or sloped access, no stairs and some with accessible lifts. But bigger mainline stations were a little different. Challenges? A main platform with down escalator, but an upwards static staircase of more than 30 steps means that I need the accessible passenger lift. 

Avoiding touching surfaces helps me avoid some germs (hand straps, seat handles and so on). I didn’t notice any indications that trains are cleaned regularly – no signage or announcements. Cleaning and ventilation in stations and on trains, and the very close proximity of people on trains are a real issue for me. The accessibility on trains and at stations are exhausting to experience, but not immediately fixable. 

Some of these challenges are also reflected in the Department of Transport’s ‘Everyone’s Journey’ research, elements of which they have recently repeated. It encourages passengers to be considerate of others, including those with non-visible disabilities. 

Hidden disability is hard to plan for, but some of the key takeaways from me for operators: 

  • continue to communicate clear information with your passengers 
  • encourage ventilation of trains and signpost for litter disposal on trains and in stations
  • introduce messaging around respect for fellow travellers and staff, for example cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze and wear a mask if you feel unwell 
  • continue to think about how easy or not your trains and stations are to navigate, including stepping up and down, distances between facilities and trains, and ease of use overall including flat and even surfaces 

Transport Focus works with transport operators to encourage them to provide better information to help people with disabilities plan journeys.  

Away from rail, we recommended that National Highways provide detailed information on the layout of motorway service areas, to enable road users to better plan their journeys. Details such as the distance between disabled parking bays and the entrance to the service station and the layout of disabled toilets.  

This information can be found here Home | AccessAble. We are now working with motorway services operators to improve the accessibility of their websites. Look out for our forthcoming report on how well this information is provided. 

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