“UPSET and annoyed” – these are the words of a disabled train user who has faced continued failures by rail staff to provide accessible services.
A catalogue of incidents encountered by New Milton resident Michael Angus, who needs to use a wheelchair to travel, have included him being abandoned on the platform when the train guard failed to assist with a ramp to get him on board.
In an ongoing campaign for South Western Railway (SWR) and Southern Rail to take action, Michael has compiled a wall chart detailing all the occasions the promised accessibility services fell short. He is being aided by his brother Brian, a former mayor and councillor who lives in Ewell, Surrey.
The chart lists a total of 73 failings during 46 journeys taken between 13th January and 15th October this year.
These include no access ramp being provided or a delay in one being provided, communication breakdowns, rude, wrong or unreasonable staff; and accessible toilets not being available.
Many of the incidents have been captured on a special video camera mounted on Michael’s wheelchair, and he has uploaded footage onto YouTube.
In response to the complaints, SWR have promised improvements are being made to ensure travel for disabled customers will be made easier. The firm’s customer experience director is also due to meet the brothers in New Milton to discuss the matter today (Friday).
Michael was left behind at New Milton station on 10th October despite having notified SWR’s control room in advance that he wished to board that particular train. This was for one of his regular trips to see his elderly parents in Cheam, Surrey.
The train guard had apparently not known he would need assistance despite him having used arm gestures to signal to the driver as the service to London Waterloo arrived.
“On this occasion, the train pulled in and lots of people were getting off and on; and the guard was at the back of the train and didn’t see me,” Michael told the A&T.
“The guards’ training is to stand by the door and keep looking out of the window until the train has left the platform, but there was no guard at the window [as the train pulled away].”
Wheelchair-using passengers have to be helped on and off the train at New Milton station by the on-board guard as that station’s staff are not trained or contractually obliged to use the ramps, Michael said. Due to this fact, he believed communication was even more important.
As reported in the A&T, Michael had been left behind on the platform at Cheam railway station in similar circumstances on two occasions last year.
He said the fact that these problems, along with others, had persisted despite assurances by the rail firms at the time made the situation “even more upsetting”.
Both SWR and Southern Rail promise that passenger assistance for disabled travellers will be provided whether the customer has pre-booked or not, although 24 hours’ notice is advised. However, Michael told the A&T he had often found this not to be the case.
“My parents’ health has got worse and I wish to be able to visit them even if I haven’t booked passenger assistance,” he continued.
“I have my own health problems. Every day I get up and see what the weather’s doing and how I’m doing before deciding whether I can travel anywhere. So I don’t get a chance to book for going out to my parents, but I always endeavour to do so when coming back.”
In one recent incident, having arrived at New Milton station as soon before his journey as he could, Michael followed SWR advice by using the emergency button on the platform intercom to alert the control room that he would need assistance getting on the train. He was assured this would be provided.
“The train came along and the guard got off a few carriages away and shouted, ‘You need to pre-book’, and I said I didn’t need to,” he recalled.
“But she shouted again, reiterating her point that I should have, whilst actually delaying the train in doing so.
“Having got me on board, she came back and said she was in fact told about me, but this was among 25 messages she had received in half an hour.
“I do have some sympathy for their situation. About 4% of that bunch of messages was relevant for her, but the rest weren’t. We’ve had that situation twice, with the guards having to go through the messages because they just can’t.”
He added: “The saving grace with SWR, as far as I’m concerned, is at least they always have a guard on board so I have a better chance of something not going wrong; and getting help when it does than I do on a Southern train.
“I’m realistic to know that things go wrong sometimes and people make mistakes, but with SWR and Southern it seems to happen at least 50% of the time,” he said.
Although acknowledging the meeting with SWR customer experience director Alan Penlington was a positive development, Michael was not very confident that it would solve all the problems which had been taking their toll on his health.
“I don’t have much of the day when I can do things from a medical point of view, so when things go wrong and I have to sort them out this encroaches on the life I’d like to live,” he explained.
“The rail company franchises are all signed up to make it hassle-free for disabled folks, including the ability to just turn up and go, and if they have the ability to make it happen, golly I’ll be a happier fellow.”
Michael said he had been approached by fellow New Milton residents who have experienced similar problems. These included a woman who uses a small scooter to get around and wants to be able to travel by train to Southampton, but feels she cannot due to the problems.
Michael explained that when he complained about the issues last year his motives were purely “altruistic” and he had no desire to seek compensation. However, as the problems persisted, he decided in around January that he would seek payouts for each failing in a bid to inspire more action.
“It seems the rail companies reckon that if they put the information out there, the onus is on us to find it,” he said.
“It seems they prefer to take the complaints and pay the claims as that would be more affordable than having to pay to sort out the problem.”
Referring to the meeting with Mr Penlington, Brian said the questions he and Michael will ask will include how SWR will still provide accessibility services if guards on trains are abolished in the future.
“Mike should be able to get out and about on the train without any stress or any bother,” he told the A&T.
“Sometimes it’s nice to go out on a whim and sometimes he could get an emergency call saying our parents are not very well and he would have to go up in a hurry.
“We’ve got three recommendations – that they should have the appropriate training, they need to sort out their communications software; and they need to have a joined-up pre-booking system,” he explained.
In response to the complaints, a spokesperson for SWR said: “We are sorry about the service Mr Angus has received.
“We are committed to providing a more inclusive service and improving accessibility.
“We are also working with Network Rail to secure additional funding from the government’s Access For All programme to improve accessibility to stations across our network.
“We have made improvements to our passenger assist programme and are trialling a new app to make travelling easier for customers with accessibility requirements. We have also appointed a dedicated accessibility manager to ensure that the needs of our disabled customers are considered at every level of the organisation.”