Disabled customers unite for a better railway experience

For most people, catching a train is as simple as buying a ticket and getting on board.

Members of the Worthing Speakabout group, including campaign organiser Sarah Holden (second from left) and David Biggs (second from right)
Members of the Worthing Speakabout group, including campaign organiser Sarah Holden (second from left) and David Biggs (second from right)

But for disabled people, there are hurdles to overcome before the journey itself.

For those with physical disabilities, making sure there is a ramp to get on and off the carriage is a challenge.

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And for people with learning difficulties, the increasingly online world of ticket booking, collection and customer assistance can be a faceless, intimidating and frustrating prospect.

But a group of railway customers have united to put pressure on Southern Rail and Transport Secretary Chris Grayling to make their rail journeys run more smoothly.

Their demands are simple: a member of staff on all trains who can help customers with learning difficulties, and for more reliable transport assistance.

Sarah Holden, 35, from Broadwater, started the campaign with fellow members of Worthing Speakabout, a self-advocacy group for people with learning difficulties.

It was sparked after a friend of hers missed a train from Barnham to Brighton for a personal independence payment assessment because the ramp she booked for her journey was not there. It meant she temporarily lost her benefits.

In her campaign manifesto, she said: “We should not have to book the help we need to travel on a train in advance.

“People who don’t need special assistance don’t have to plan in advance and things crop up at the last minute.

“We all have equal rights and we should all have the same opportunities, treated as equals.”

Sarah has gathered more than 60 signatures online and in print for a petition she hoped to present to rail bosses and Mr Grayling.

With members of Worthing Speakabout, she made a poster where they wrote down their frustrations about getting trains. Messages included ‘announcements on trains are not very clear, I can’t understand what they are saying’ and ‘if trains are cancelled, it makes me panic’.

David Biggs, 39, from Worthing, has been part of the group for 12 years. The wheelchair user disliked booking a ramp online, especially as the service was so unreliable. He said: “Every time we go online to book a train they never turn up with a ramp. It makes me angry.”

Phillip Turner, from Lancing said other train users ignore his priority seat card.

A Southern Railway spokesman said it was ‘committed to making our services as accessible as possible to everybody’ with the ‘vast majority’ of help given to disabled people at short notice.

They said: “A year ago we modernised working practices for many of our on board staff, so that they no longer need to close the train doors and can devote more journey time to helping passengers.”

They said staff were trained to help people with ‘hidden disabilities’ and had also introduced travel support cards and guides for customers with difficulties communicating to let staff know what help they want.

Southern Railway also runs Try a Train events to boost people’s confidence to travel independently.

To sign Sarah’s petition, visit worthingspeakabout.wordpress.com/campaigns