Train trials

I talked about bus travel in a previous blog. This time I’m going to say a bit about what it’s like to ride on trains if you have a visual impairment. I could probably write a book on this topic, (but you can breathe a sigh of relief, because I’m not going to!).

In the old days, before, say, the 1990s, you couldn’t book assistance in advance on railways in the UK. You just turned up and hoped that the staff – or members of the public – would be helpful. Generally, they were.

For four years, I commuted between Slough and London Paddington and daily ran the gauntlet of delays, cancelled trains, and varying degrees of help. I did tend to travel with the same passengers each day, though. They got to know me and were very supportive.

It was not unusual for platform changes to occur and I would often have to rush from one end of Paddington station to the other. (Did I mention that I have severe mobility problems?)

On one particularly bad evening, the platform my train was scheduled to leave kept changing. I finally sat down in a carriage only to hear a voice come over the speaker.

“This service has been cancelled.”

I was so exasperated I said out loud, “It can’t be cancelled. I’m sitting on it!”

A man across the aisle chuckled, and then offered to assist me to find the new platform.

My parents used to fetch me from the station in the evening after work, but this was in the days before mobile phones and I had no way of letting them know if I was going to be late. If I was delayed and a railway employee was assisting me, I would sometimes ask them to contact Slough for me, but I could never know for sure whether they would.

Sometimes, they did.

One evening, my mother arrived at Slough station, looked up at the train information monitor and was surprised to find herself reading, “Mrs. Furse, your daughter will be on the 21:20.” This flashed up several times, just to make sure she didn’t miss it!

That was great, but those assisting me weren’t always so reliable.

One particular journey sticks in my mind. I had been in Shrewsbury for a meeting. When I arrived at the station to make my way home, a railway staff member came out to assist me. He kindly put me in the waiting room, so that I would be warm and comfortable, and assured me that he would come back to put me on the train.

I waited.

Time passed.

I waited some more.

The room was very noisy and I couldn’t hear the train announcements, but after a while I began to suspect that my train must have departed, so I asked a fellow passenger. She duly checked, and, yes, the train had already come and gone. She found the staff member who had been assisting me. He had been busy. He had forgotten me. He was apologetic.

In missing my train, I had also missed my connection at Newport but he put me on a train stopping at Bristol and agreed to phone home for me. As usual, I had no way of knowing whether he actually would. His track record was not encouraging.

The train pulled out of Shrewsbury station. I was relieved to be moving at last but was anxious about what would happen when I arrived at Bristol.

I needn’t have worried. I was whipped of the train and taken to the supervisor’s office where, to my pleasant surprise, I was given a mug of tea and a Danish pastry.

Sipping the tea, I remarked, “This is the best thing that’s happened to me all day.”

“Well, Madam,” he replied, “You’re at Bristol Temple Meads now.”

There are times when local pride is a very fine thing.

I then asked, a little timidly, if I could go to the Ladies. The supervisor wasted no time. He recalled the female announcer from her duties and took over from her at the microphone while she escorted me to the staff amenities. As we walked along, we heard his voice echoing over the station PA.

“My colleague is on an errand at the moment, so I’m doing the announcements.”

They looked after me so well that when I finally arrived home, three hours later than advertised, I was much less stressed than I might have been. And, yes, Shrewsbury had called my parents, although Bristol did too, which was a great reassurance to me.

After I had recovered, I wrote a letter of complaint to Shrewsbury station and a letter of thanks to Bristol Temple Meads. I got a £20 voucher from Shrewsbury and a thank-you letter for my thank-you letter from Bristol.

Bristol will always have a soft spot in my heart!

Things have changed since those hit-and-miss days. Now there is a system. You can phone up and book tickets and assistance in advance. You are given a reserved seat and a railway employee helps you onto the train and another helps you off at the other end. I still feel anxious when they sit me down at the station and say they will come and get me, but I am usually sitting near the information desk, so it is less likely that I will be forgotten.

At Paddington, I get to ride on one of their wonderful electric buggies, which helps a lot as there is a long way to walk from the platforms to the taxi rank.

It’s a much better way of doing things and I don’t miss the worrying, haphazard train journeys of times past.

You did get to meet some interesting people, though.

I once encountered an Irish druid on the way from Swindon to Stroud in Gloucestershire. He offered to help me when we reached our destination and as there is a big step down and a large gap between the train and the platform at Stroud, I accepted with alacrity. Rather than offering me a hand or an arm, however, he scooped me completely up off my feet and my friend waiting to meet me at Stroud station was amazed to see me being carried off the train like a babe in arms!