All images: Max Bögl


South Western Rail’s new assistance scheme

Frankie Youd speaks to Alan Benson, a member of SWR’s accessibility panel and trustee chair for non-profit Transport for All, about the UK railway operator’s new assistance scheme.

Travelling as a disabled passenger can be a stressful, anxiety-inducing experience that involves booking railway assistance hours or even days in advance to ensure help will be available on arrival. South Western Rail’s (SWR) launch of a new assistance scheme sees disabled passengers being able to turn up and receive assistance ten minutes before travelling, rather than pre-planning.

With over 14 million disabled individuals in the UK, the importance of railway assistance in the form of staff members on hand, ramps, and other accessibility solutions, is imperative to ensure these passengers receive all the help they require for their journey.

At present, if assistance is required by a disabled or older passenger this must be booked in advance to ensure staff at the station and on trains are able to provide the help that is needed. This process adds an extra layer of planning to travel which can impact the overall enjoyment of a spontaneous trip.

Launched by SWR the ‘assisted boarding points’ – which will be located on SWR’s 189 stations – will allow passengers to interact with a QR code which will send details of their journey and assistance required to SWR staff.

Alan Benson, who sits on SWR’s accessibility panel, co-chairs the DFT’s Inclusive Transport Stakeholder Group, and chairs Transport for All – the only UK disability organisation that exclusively focuses on transport – discusses the new service and how he has been impacted by accessibility rail issues.

James Bain. Credit: Worldline

Frankie Youd:  Could you tell me about the new assistance scheme and how it works?

Alan Benson: In an ideal world I would roll up to the station in my wheelchair, I’d get on the train, just like everybody else, and get off the other end. The problem, of course, is that railway staff are busy doing other things. Historically the railway companies have always said you need to contact us 24 hours in advance for book assistance, that’s not always been successful.

Train companies one by one have been implementing their own solutions for this. SWR have implemented ‘assisted boarding points’ at un-staffed stations. At these points, there’s a poster on the wall with a QR code and a phone number. The QR code takes you to WhatsApp or you can ring the phone number.

Say I’m at this station, I’m going to wherever I’m going to. I tell them the assistance that I need. They will then contact a guard on the next train and warn the guard that I’m there so that when they arrive they’ll come and find me and help me on the train.

We’ve gone from two to three hours planning ahead to turning up at the station and it taking 10 or 15 minutes.

Servelec rail case study - frozen points med

When is this scheme going to be available? Have you tested it?

It is available now, they’ve been testing it for six months I think. Unfortunately, they came up with the idea just before Covid-19, so when everybody stopped travelling that made the testing a bit difficult. The idea is to give disabled people sight of their booking, if you ring up and book you’ve got no evidence that it’s been booked – with this you have got an acknowledgement and you know what’s going on.

I do have dexterity issues so using a mobile phone is not the easiest thing in the world. So, for me, it wasn’t the easiest solution – but having said that it’s a lot better than the other alternatives.

Obviously, there are some issues. If you’re blind or partially sighted and can’t see the poster, it’s no good to you. If you don’t have a mobile phone, it’s no good for you. If you’re blind or partially sighted you could set up your phone before when you’re at home, because the WhatsApp number is the same across the network, but that takes a bit of planning.

How have you been impacted by lack of accessibility while travelling?

The thing that enables most people to travel is the confidence that the solution will work. It’s really hard to build up confidence but very easy to destroy. Everybody I know has been left on a train beyond their destination. It’s so common that the railway industry has a name for it: being overcarried.

There was one occasion where I had an assistant with me, she got off the train to find me a ramp or some platform staff. The door shut and the train left while she’s still on the platform and I’m on the train. Only one-quarter of the stations are accessible to disabled users so I couldn’t get off at the next station and turn around because it’s not accessible. It was another four stations before there was one that I could get off at and turn around.

Everybody I know has been left on a train beyond their destination. It’s so common that the railway industry has a name for it: being overcarried.

Do you think the industry should be doing more within this area?

I have been doing this for about ten years and particularly in the rail industry, the basic response is: “we can’t do that because we’ve always done it this way”.

The rail industry is particularly inert and resistant to change. There are some people in the industry who are really committed to making change, but the barrier we always come up against is particularly around health and safety.

What we learned during Covid-19 is that, when push comes to shove, the industry can change – and it can change very quickly if it needs to. If enough motivation is there it can change, which gives us as campaigners some hope.

However, the other thing that’s come out of Covid-19 is all of the initiatives, all of the staff training concerning disabled passengers, has been put to one side because everybody’s been focusing on Covid=19. There’s a lot of new members of staff on the railway, they’ve not been able to be trained properly because they can’t do large meetings.

The other thing is that disabled people haven’t been travelling, many of them have been isolating – so railway staff have got out of that habit of helping them. What we’re seeing is that the level of service has gone down since the pandemic, the number of stories on Twitter that you’re seeing about people being left on trains, and people not being able to get on trains during the pandemic has increased.

Where have you noticed change within the industry?

Heathrow Express was step-free with level boarding: the Paddington to Heathrow trains were level access – I didn’t need assistance to get on one. In an ideal world as a wheelchair user, I would like to be able to just get on and off trains. If there was no gap, if there was no step, then I wouldn’t need a ramp.

They’ve [Heathrow Express] just replaced the whole fleet with a new fleet of trains that are not level access, so they have taken a really big step backwards. Whereas I used to just turn up and roll on then roll off, now I need assistance, now I need a ramp. This is an example where things are getting worse.

On the positive side you look at Greater Anglia, they’ve just bought new trains that have ramps built into them. I turn up and wheel on and off, they are much safer in terms of the platform to train interface. Mersey Rail is just about to introduce a new fleet of trains, they are also level access. What they’ve done is they’ve altered all the platforms across the network, so that now you don’t need a ramp at any of their stations.

There are shining examples of good practice, but mixed in with them are some dreadful examples of taking steps backwards.

What would you like the future to hold?

The rail industry has been training platform staff, training the passenger facing staff in disability equality for the last ten years. Most of that training hasn’t been delivered by disabled people. I strongly believe that if you’re going to train about disability equality then disabled people ought to be doing it.

I would like to see the rail industry train the back-office staff, the project managers, the senior managers, the directors, and get them out on the network with disabled people to see what their journeys are like. This is something that Transport for All has been doing with London Underground. The interesting thing is, they come away from that training realising that with the decisions that they make every day it’s within their power to make a difference.

I think all the government initiatives, the National Disability Strategy, all of these things are great – but until the senior managers understand the impact that they can have, that’s what’s going to make the difference. We need accessibility to be considered in the same way that health and safety is. Health and safety is at the heart of every decision – if you put accessibility up there as well that’s how we will get significant change.

Main image: South Western Rail’s (SWR) launch of a new assistance scheme sees disabled passengers being able to turn up and receive assistance ten minutes before travelling, rather than pre-planning. Credit: South Western Rail.

All images: Max Bögl