The Challenges of Unplanned Travel as a Visually Impaired Person – Vision Foundation

The Challenges of Unplanned Travel as a Visually Impaired Person

Black and white photo of Chris in front of a lake. The sun is shining from behind him, he's wearing a check shirt over a black tshirt and holding a white cane in his hand

Chris Owen is a regular contributor for Vision Foundation. You can find his previous blogs here.

I decided to do a little experiment today as Chester and I took a solo trip to visit my eldest at university in Kingston. It’s quite a straightforward trip on South Western Railway from Reading with just a single change at Twickenham. So what’s the experiment?

Turn Up And Go

Well, despite being well versed in travelling by train with a visual impairment, I often plan my trips in advance and book my assistance prior to leaving the house but, today I don’t know what time I’ll be travelling and so am going to have to take the risk and simply turn up at the station and see what happens. Believe it or not, but for disabled travellers there is even a terminology for this type of impromptu travel – it’s Turn Up and Go (or TUAG for short).

Isn’t it funny that the mere concept of arriving at a station, hopping on a train and going to your destination should be such a test but, as a disabled person, it is not something we can take for granted. With years of underinvestment, staff shortages, driver-only trains and unmanned stations, travelling as a disabled person is not the basic right that you would otherwise imagine. Quite often, the first thing to go in this time of austerity are the essential services that enabled disadvantaged travellers to access fundamental transport. As we are told that we must not be a burden on society and pay our own way in life, there are so many barriers to this but, instead of investing in these services, we are often demonised and blamed for not contributing.

Anyway, rant over and Chester and I have arrived at Reading for the first leg of our trip. We make our way to the ticket office for me to buy my ticket and at the same time, I request assistance for the trip. As we have around 25 minutes before the train is due, Chester and I pop next door to the coffee shop so I can grab a hot drink for the journey, as we’re coming back to the ticket office, my assistant approaches. He takes me through the barriers and as we turn onto the platform, the train is just pulling in. We let the crowds of departing travellers disperse and then make our way to the accessible coach. As we board, the guard comes across and I tell her where I’m going. The assistant helps me to my seat and then leaves me to settle in whilst he calls through to Twickenham. So far, so good.

But not for long…

As we approach Twickenham, I harness Chester back up and tidy away his things. The guard is nowhere to be seen, so we find our way to the exit and wait for the alert that they are open. But disaster, when the alert sounds it isn’t from the doors I am stood at, but the ones behind us! I take a step back, and tell Chester “back” and then “door” and he turns me round and takes me to the correct door and we stop whilst I get myself set at the edge of the train and reach out to my left for the handle. With Chester in one hand and the grab handle in the other, I gingerly step out towards the platform and lower my foot slowly down until I feel the safety of the solid platform. This is one of the other issues when travelling by train – despite there being other travellers waiting to board and get off, not one person offered a helpful arm or even a friendly word of encouragement.

Once Chester and I were safely on the platform we stood for a while waiting for someone to come and, were just about to try to figure out where to go when a puffed out member of staff came running up. Turns out, the information he was given was that we were in coach 3 (or third from the front), not coach 8 (third from back) and the guard on that section of the train was unaware that we were on board. Thankfully all was well and we headed to the lift. It was only when he took me out to the barriers that it became clear he had not been told that Twickenham was not my final destination. So, that got cleared up and back down in the lift and a short wait for the next train.

The next train came in on time and he helped me aboard and rang through to Kingston as well as logging my trip online. Just 12 minutes later, we arrived in Kingston – once more, nobody to be found so Chester and I carefully exited the train and stood looking lost whilst I tried to work out where the exit was. This time, another passenger let me know the way and we set off down the ramp to the underpass and the exit.

Marks out of 10 for the outbound trip – A disappointing 4.

Not the greatest start to the day, but once in Kingston, Chester and I waited outside the station for Kira to meet us. We were only waiting a couple of minutes when I felt Chester entire body start to wag as he saw Kira approach and there was no stopping him as he went in for big cuddles. Cuddles over, he refocussed and we had a pleasant few hours wondering around the town centre and then headed to the park near Kira’s digs for Chester to blow off some steam with a free run and then we found a pub for a late lunch.

The Return Journey

After filling up on steak and ale pie and chips smothered in thick gravy we wondered back to the station for the return leg. There was only about 10 minutes before the train was due and so the member of staff manning the barriers guided me up the stairs to the assistance desk where someone was waiting to help us aboard.

When the train arrived a couple of minutes later, the guard jumped out and introduced herself as the station crew assisted me aboard. Once we were moving, she came over and checked what help I needed at Twickenham and then advised she would be back to help me off and would wait with me until someone was there to meet me on the platform.

At Twickenham, there was no need to worry, by the time Chester and I were safely off the train one of the assistance team was already there. I thanked the guard for her help and we set off down the platform to the lift. We found a seat on the chilly platform and settled down for the 20 minute wait for the final train of the day and home. We boarded with a wheelchair user at the accessible boarding point and found a seat for Chester and I to get comfy for the slow, hour-long plod back up to Reading.

The journey was uneventful save Chester struggling to settle on the cold floor with the constant stop-start as we went through station after station but a stuffed King Kong toy helped. We didn’t see the guard for the entire trip but when we finally reached Reading, one of the station staff was there to meet us and guide us down to the pick-up point and Kath, waiting in the nice, warm car.

Marks out of 10 for the return leg: A much more satisfactory 8.

So there you go, these are the challenges that disabled people face when getting out on a trip that most abled travellers take for granted. This short journey is a case in point at how inconsistent passenger assistance can be and it is no wonder many disabled people shy away from travelling alone.

You may think that it is only to be expected that we should plan our journeys in advance but sometimes that simply is not possible meaning TUAG is a fundamental right of any traveller, no matter our circumstances. But sadly unless the direction of travel changes regarding public transport in general, and rail travel in particular we will become more and more isolated.