Actions of the National French Railway Society (SNCF) in support of accessibility
First of all I would like to congratulate the SNCF for creating accessibility commissions and organising monthly meetings of all the organisations for disabled people. This allows transport technicians to understand our demands and to ask us directly about our needs. By 2024, thanks to these accessibility commissions, all French railway stations will be equipped with the following systems:
- Access: An audible beacon will indicate the main entrance to the station. Magnetic loops will be found at all ticket windows and other station services. Automatic ticket machines will be vocalised.
- Horizontal movement: Guideway – two guide bands, each of 15 centimetres and placed 40 centimetres apart. Change of direction is indicated by a square coupled to audible beacons (one for each direction) which show the direction to follow according to the desired destination - ticket windows, toilets, reception….) , It should be noted that the beacons are activated one after the other and are turned towards the ground to show us which direction to take. Warning tactile walking strips are provided on every platform.
- Vertical movement: The stairs have warning tactile floor strips before them, handrails with braille and information in large letters, each step edge is contrasted visually and with tactile flooring with the preceding and following steps. The lifts conforms to the European norm EN 81-70.
All these works should have been completed for 2015. The equipment described above is very expensive and the SNCF has tried on many occasions to have them replaced by 'beacon and GPS' technologies, but, as well as these solutions not being precise enough, the visually impaired population as a whole could not manage them, which is why we rejected them.
In addition, the consultative process is difficult at times because accessibility comes down to the details. Architects have a tendency to forget the little things that make for accessibility or not. Let us take, for example, the new TGV (high-speed train) station at Montpellier: the elements of the guideways and audible beacons help us getting off taxis or public transport and guide us in the station. The problem was that the audible beacon at the point of 'access for the disabled' had been forgotten. As a result, blind or visually impaired people could not get the help of the staff of the 'Access Plus' service (accompanying service) who were meant to lead them to the train. It has taken us numerous exchanges of emails and considerable pressure to persuade the staff to include this beacon in the system and to understand that it is not superfluous.
We have also had great difficulty in getting our voice heard on accessibility on commercial internet sites or the SNCF's mobile applications. It is not easy for a blind person to buy tickets with complete independence on the customer websites. The SNCF should understand that we are ordinary customers and this lack of accessibility constitutes discrimination against the visually impaired.
Further, European regulations currently being revised provide for disabled people to be accompanied on board the trains. The SNCF established the 'Access Plus' service, of which we spoke above. It is necessary to call them 48 hours in advance in order to use the service. But this delay is unacceptable for people travelling at the last minute.
Moreover, the SNCF is considering no longer providing guidance for visually impaired people if they are accompanied, arguing that the accompanying person benefits from very reduced fares. We are strongly opposed to this and have made the situation known to the Ministry of Transport. This decision is not acceptable because stations are anxiety-inducing environments and we are in need of our accompanying persons, who are also of help to us on board the trains. It should equally be noted that the more elderly among us, in addition to blindness, can have mobility problems. The accompanying person would experience much difficulty in the great French stations in both accompanying and guiding the visually-impaired person when the train information is not displayed until twenty minutes before its departure.
Not only is the 'Access Plus' service under-staffed but in addition the SNCF has been obliged to open its access to 'Persons with reduced mobility', meaning anyone with mobility issues. Ultimately demand has exploded and the search for economies has fallen on treatment of the visually impaired. Once again this is not acceptable and we need to fight it. This is what happens to a number of disabled people, when they are forgotten at the entrance and miss their train, or even forgotten on board the train at its destination. The latest example to date: a visually impaired person from Auxerres who was forgotten on board the train at its arrival in the station rebelled and had the SNCF convicted for dereliction of duty.
By Thierry Jammes, Expert in accessibility