Rail transport and the visually impaired in the UK

In the U.K. we have over two million people who are blind and partially sighted. Many have additional disabilities, such as diabetes and arthritis. These disabilities can cause loss of feeling in the feet and hands. The majority of these people will have to rely on public transport throughout their lives.

I have used trains all my life, the first 24 years as a partially sighted person with sight in one eye, having my left eye removed at the age of one. For the past 54 years I have been totally blind. I still use trains regularly, often to travel to London to meetings, a 50 minute journey. As a partially sighted person I never asked for help, but in those days there were plenty of staff on trains and at stations. There were always staff at booking offices at all times of the day. I was a chef in London, so caught a very early train, and would often come home very late. There were always plenty of staff which gave me confidence to travel. Station names were in very large print that I could see, and guards would be on every train to help passengers with luggage etc.

Over the past fifty years I have seen staff levels decrease, which has made it more difficult for blind and partially sighted people to travel safely and with confidence. As a member of the National Federation of the Blind since 1970 I have campaigned to retain staff at stations and announcements on trains and at stations. After many years working with the Department of Transport and various rail companies, regulations state that all trains must have and use an announcement system. This gives one a lot of confidence to travel, when you know where you are on a journey, and when you are approaching your station. What has not been so good is the reduction of staff levels at stations and on trains. Many of our stations were built over a hundred years ago and are not very accessible. At my own railway station, Chalkwell, we have a gap between the platform and the train. When I had my first guide dog in 1972 she fell three times when getting on the train. Ever since I will not get on a train without help from another person. If there are no staff then I get help from another passenger.

Rail regulations say that a disabled person should book assistance in advance. I have done this a few times when making a journey involving changing trains in London. Sometimes it works and sometimes it does not. I never book when going to a meeting in London, as I never know how long the meeting will last, and if I get a taxi from the meeting venue to the station, I never know how long it will take. I have had a mobile phone since 1992. When I am 10 minutes away from the station I phone the station and they will send a member of staff to meet me from the taxi. This works a lot better than booking assistance in advance. Once I am on my train, staff will phone my local station who will normally have someone there to meet me.

So many stations are now unstaffed, and many passengers with disabilities cannot choose those stations to travel to and from. Research has been done by the Research Institute for Disabled Consumers on behalf of railway companies about the turn up and go system that I use. We campaign that all railway staff should be trained how to give assistance to blind and partially sighted people. The turn up and go system will only work if all stations are staffed at all times.

Automatic ticket machines are fine for those who are able to use them, but many are unable to do so. With the population of older people being doubled in the next ten years, there must be more staff to help these passengers. Many need help to carry luggage on and off trains, and many will need a ramp to cover the gaps between the platform and the train.

Although new trains are being built for the future with access in mind, more consideration must be given to the need for staff on and off trains to give blind and partially sighted people more confidence to travel.

By Jill Allen-King, OBE