Failing passengers with disabilities - South Western Railway

17 Nov 2017

Below is an e-mail that I have just sent to Andy Mellors - the MD of South Western Railway, Tim O'Toole CBE - the CEO of First Group, and Jeremy Long, the CEO of European Business at MTR. I have sent it via their customer relations team, so I have had to be quite direct in the first paragraph. 


I will of course post any responses that I get here. 

Dear Sir/Madam,


Please could you forward this email on to the individuals who are listed in the subject line of this e-mail. I must insist that this complaint goes to the highest levels, as it relates to a systematic failure across the South Western Railways network. Any response received from the Customer Relations team or anyone other than those named in the subject line will be reported publicly on Social Media.




Dear Mr Mellors, Mr O’Toole, and Mr Long,


I am writing to you today to report a fundamental failure by your railway service to do something that should be quite simple – enable me to get on and off the train independently.


I am a power wheelchair user, and I regularly travel from Woking Station to London Waterloo Station to meet with friends, to attend protests/demonstrations, and for hospital appointments. If I were an able bodied passenger, I would have zero issues with getting on and off your trains. I might not be able to find a seat, granted, but generally speaking my journeys would be completely hassle free.


As a person with a disability, I am advised that I should book assistance in advance of my journey. This is something that I refuse to do, because booking assistance requires me to know the exact train that I am going to be travelling on. Often, I don’t know which train I am getting on. I turn up at the station when I am ready to go, as my able-bodied fellow passengers do.


Allow me to describe three journeys in the past month where my travel was not hassle free.


The first instance of this was on a Sunday evening. At Waterloo I had a bit of difficulty in finding someone to help me get on to the train. Then, whilst the train was going through Clapham Junction, the electrics failed in the carriage I was on, plunging us into complete darkness for the remainder of my journey. When the train arrived at Woking, there was nobody there to meet me with a ramp. Not only did I have to rely on the kindness of strangers to get the attention of the someone, but I also had to sit in the doorway of the train to prevent it from closing and the train leaving, with me still on board. Eventually the station staff arrived with the ramp, and I was allowed to disembark.


The second instance of this was on a Wednesday evening. I was assured at Waterloo that they would ring through to Woking, however yet again when I got to Woking, there was no-one there to meet me with a ramp, and yet again I had to rely on the kindness of strangers to help me get the attention of the guard whilst I positioned my chair in the door way of the train. The guard on board the train realised what was happening, and came to help me get off. It was only after the guard had begun to help me that someone from the station showed up, though it was far too late.


The third instance of this was today. On entering the station at Woking I spoke with the barrier supervisor, who kindly radioed through to station staff advising them that I would need assistance, and the platform on which I would need that assistance. I got the lift across, and arrived on the platform, but there were no members of station staff there at all. Someone entered the office on that particular platform, but that person seemed in a world of their own and was ignoring our attempts to get their attention. Meanwhile I was looking around the platform for anyone else who could help, but to no avail. When the train arrived, we were incredibly lucky that the guard was on the wheelchair accessible carriage, and he immediately jumped into action to help me on board. Meanwhile the person in the office suddenly realised what was happening, and another member of station staff showed up.


I can tell you from personal experience that being on a train and not knowing whether there is anyone to meet you at the other end is a very stressful experience. Sitting in the doorway of the train, not knowing whether it would try and shut on you, is a very stressful experience. Arriving on the platform and not being able to find someone to help you to board the train is a very stressful experience.


Now you might say that these examples are caused by a lack of training and basic human error. I would agree with you, but I know of a number of other people with disabilities who have had similar experiences not only on your railway service, but across the UK too. You might also say that the guards are all trained to help passengers with disabilities, but the fact remains that it should be a team effort. The guard today hit the nail on the head when he said that “Whenever there’s some work to do, they [the station staff] seem to vanish”.


The fact is that in two of these instances, were it not for the guards, I would not have been able to get on or off the train. I know that South Western Railways have committed to not abolishing the role of the guard for the time being, but I must take this opportunity to impress upon you the absolute importance of keeping guards on trains. I would urge you to take this message to other railway operators who are contemplating the abolition of this role. Such a move would be considered by many people with disabilities (myself included) to be a violation of the Equality Act, and would most likely be subject to a legal challenge.  


None of this takes into account the issue of independently accessing the train. In case you are not familiar with the social model of disability, it is based upon the premise that people with disabilities have impairments that mean that we require extra support to enjoy the freedoms that everyone else is able to enjoy, but that it is society that disables us, and prevents us from enjoying those freedoms, which could be due to physical barriers, or due to mental barriers, or both. In this case, the freedom that is being prevented is the ability to travel independently and freely and without needing to rely on other people. An able-bodied individual would be able to simply step on and off the train without help, whereas we must go through the stress and hassle of finding someone to use the ramp for us. This basic freedom is being undermined by the lack of consideration of people with disabilities in investment in our railway services, both by operators and by the government.


Across Europe the system is entirely different. In some places, the trains have ramps that automatically deploy at the touch of a button. In other places, the platforms have raised sections, and the train pulls up in exactly the right place for the wheelchair accessible carriages to marry up with these raised sections. I see no reason why either of these options could not be implemented here in Britain and across your network.


The Equality Act states that accessibility is not just about wheelchair access – it’s about making it as easy as possible for everyone to access whatever service is being offered. Implementing either of these options would make life so much easier for everyone.


The provision of portable ramps might be enough to be considered a reasonable adjustment, however I, and many other people with disabilities, do not deem this to be a suitable solution to the issue, given the level of hassle that we have to go through, the amount of stress that this causes, and the basic freedom to be able to travel independently that is being taken away.


I hope you will agree with me that this is not good enough, and the situation needs radical change to improve things for passengers with disabilities.


I therefore wish to request a meeting with one or more of you to discuss how we can drive forward change in your railway service, to make your service a trailblazer in terms of provision for disabled passengers.


Please note that I will be publishing this email and your response(s) to it on my website:


I look forward to hearing from you.


Yours sincerely


Alex Hovden

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