Last week I ventured on a long distance train for the first time. My office overlooks a train station and I do occasionally find myself pondering the width of the doors and the size of the step down from the train. Neither reassured me. Then there were the posts I read on social media and in the press about booked assistance not turning up. I've seen statistics as high as a 20% failure rate. I can't image having to commute via train with a wheelchair, when on 2 journeys a week you either can't get on, or can't get off, the train. And I'm not sure which is worse. I used to joke that I was worried I'd end up in Penzance.
Anyway, a work trip to Durham, on a Monday at the start of a very busy week, meant there really was no option but the train.
Guess what. I had to get a Penzance train.
I managed to book online and using the Cross Country website had, I thought, booked assistance. What I wanted was to put my wheelchair in the luggage area and sit on a seat - lightweight wheelchairs are inherently unstable, that's what you trade for maneuverability. On a fast, bumpy train that's not ideal. Were there a way of securing the wheelchair, it would be OK, but there is no way to secure a wheelchair in most train carriages. The same is true of buses. 20 years ago we had guidance that Wheelchair and Occupant Restraint Systems should be in place on public transport. Somehow, that has disappeared.
So. I e-mailed and checked. No answer. Then I got three e-mails confirming my assistance for the return journey (which, due to it costing a mere 20p extra, was in first class) but none for the outbound trip. After more e-mails, in frustration I took to twitter. Cross Country's PR team claimed that the wheelchair couldn't go as luggage, as it wasn't luggage. It couldn't go in the bike area, as it wasn't a bike. It couldn't go in the wheelchair space if I wasn't in it (reasonable). It seemed like an impasse. Eventually I phoned the Cross Country assistance team. They confirmed assistance was booked, at least, and conceded that the wheelchair could go in the luggage area but only if I could stow it and take the wheels off myself as the assistance staff could not board the train.
Monday was D-day. I was at the station at least half an hour before departure and chatted to a nice woman who was the sole member of staff assisting passengers on a busy mainline station. My train wasn't on the board yet so I said I would wait on the concourse. 25 minutes later, with less than 10 minutes to go and with the colleague I was travelling with having arrived, I asked their gate staff to let the assistance woman know that I was heading down to the platform. She arrived a couple of minutes later. I got on the train no problems.
Once on the train I started disassembling the wheelchair, much to the confusion of the Train Manager. It seems they are very frustrated with what is said by both the PR team and the assistance booking team. My situation is not unusual (there are a lot of lightweight users out there) and what they advise is to book for Coach D or F. Then they just wheel the wheelchair through to the luggage area. So now I know for next time.
My journey of course wasn't over. When we got to Durham there was no sign of the booked assistance. Virgin East Coast had no record of my request for assistance. My colleague and a stranger helped me down from the train - just as well or I could have ended up in Penzance after all!
On the way back, I got to the station an hour in advance and, thankfully, everyone had a record of me and I got all the help I needed. Since the train was quiet, my wheelchair sat in the wheelchair space and I sat in my seat. I suspect the fact I was in First Class helped. I hate to say it, but I suspect that's what I'll do in future, if I can.
My assistance failure rate - 25%