Is there a more reliable New Year’s tradition than a train price hike? On cue, January saw rail fares rise by 3.1% adding hundreds of pounds to many commuters’ annual travel.
A rise in price would never be popular but it sits particularly badly after 2018’s timetabling chaos saw the worst punctuality figures for over a decade, all at a time when fares have grown faster than squeezed wages.
Sky presenter, Martha Kelner’s complaint to Virgin Trains recently went viral after she was forced to splash out £338 on an open return ticket from London to Manchester. This fury is more than justified. Travel by train is now often an unaffordable luxury, in which a vital public service is squandered by profit driven companies. Kelner, for example, could ludicrously have actually gotten cheaper travel to fly to New York (a snip at £257).
But it’s telling that, as the media, politicians, and the public unite in their criticism of the railways, the plight facing disabled passengers has barely been mentioned. This is despite the fact that new research by disability charity, Leonard Cheshire has found a staggering 40% of Britain’s railway stations are inaccessible to disabled people. Even timetabling is a disability issue. When MPs recently reported on the chaotic changes to timetables last summer, they noted that it was disabled people who were disproportionately affected.
Forget being charged a fortune for traveling, disabled people are lucky to even get on the train.
Like most disabled travellers, I’ve got a long list of nightmare train stories. The staff member who offloaded my wheelchair from the train (without me in it), let go of the handles, and watched it roll away. Buying a ticket before discovering my wheelchair wouldn’t fit on the train, only to have to buy another one and go through customer services to get a refund for the first. That’s not to mention the fact that it takes nearly an hour to complete a booking, even when things go right. Or that it’s still standard practice for disabled people to have to book assistance 24 hours in advance, unlike non-disabled passengers who can spontaneously turn up and expect to travel whenever they like.
None of this is to argue that disabled and non-disabled people’s transport needs are competing interests or that access is somehow more important than cost (indeed, disabled people are not immune to price hikes) but that it says something about disabled people’s status that, even at a time when the railway is being pressured to change, disabled passengers’ needs are still rarely even considered.
In the twenty-first century, Britain’s railway infrastructure must be accessible in every way, be it in terms of income or disability. That’s surely a campaign to which we can all get on board.
About Frances Ryan
Frances Ryan is a Guardian columnist. Her debut book, Crippled, on disability and austerity is available from Verso in June 2019. www.versobooks.com/authors/2357-frances-ryan