Following the government’s recently published National Disability Strategy that identifies a bold vision to transform the everyday lives of disabled people, committed campaigner on improving transport for disabled people, Helen Dolphin, MBE shares her recent experiences of using the public transport network as a wheelchair user.
Travelling by bus with a powered wheelchair
With lockdown restrictions coming to an end, I was desperate to get out of the house and start exploring, visiting new and interesting places again. As I was in Cambridge for the weekend visiting my parents, I thought it would be good to take my four-year-old son to the Fitzwilliam Museum. To get to the museum, I decided to use the Park and Ride bus service. As its lightweight and easy to fold, I was able to take my Efoldi powered wheelchair with me and store it in the car boot on the way to the bus station. I had not used a bus since before the first lockdown, so I must admit I was a little apprehensive about the journey ahead. It was also my first trip on a bus with my wheelchair, so I was really interested to see how it coped with the journey.
The good thing about the park and ride service is that there is very little waiting time for a bus. In fact, the bus was already at the bus stop when we arrived. When the bus driver saw me arrive, he got out of his cab and put the ramp down almost straight away. My power chair easily drove up the ramp and I was able to drive into the allocated wheelchair space on the bus with ease. Luckily, the park and ride buses have a space for wheelchairs as well as a space for pushchairs so there was no competition for spaces on this occasion.
To ensure my wheelchair wasn’t going to move too much during the bus journey, I applied the manual brakes to secure the chair in place. I had no issues during the trip, and my chair stayed put for the entire journey. There are only a small number of stops on this park and ride bus service so I had to get off a short distance away from the museum entrance. As I arrived a little earlier than expected, I made the most of my time and decided to visit a few shops, close to the museum. Fortunately, my chair is great for shopping, as it’s not too wide, fits between all the clothes rails and is quite manoeuvrable, which makes it very easy to use in confined spaces.
Cambridge city centre has a lot of cobbles and uneven stone paving, and to get to the museum I had to drive over a lot of difficult terrain. It was a little bit bumpy, but actually my wheelchair managed the cobbles pretty well. Before I’d left home, I had noticed the battery on my wheelchair was only halfway charged so I made sure I kept a spare battery with me in case I needed it along the way. Even though I’d driven around the department store, all the way up to the museum and around the museum and then back to the bus stop again I still had some charge left so I didn’t need a spare battery. On my return journey, the bus back to my car was empty apart from my family on it, so we had the bus to ourselves. It was great getting out and about again and having the opportunity to put my Efoldi power chair through its paces – and it coped really well. It was so nice not to have to be pushed, and I could enjoy some much-needed freedom and independence – once again!
Travelling by train with a powered wheelchair
Having only recently acquired a new powered chair, I was keen to try it out on my first train journey since restrictions were lifted due to COVID-19. I’d never actually travelled on a train with a powered wheelchair before, mainly because I had not previously been able to fit any of my other powered wheelchairs into my car.
We’d decided to catch the train from Attleborough, which is my nearest station, to Great Yarmouth. As Attleborough is an unmanned station, I pre-booked my assistance with the train company before we got there. I did have to renew my Disabled Person’s Railcard, but that also saves you and a companion a, third-off the standard ticket price. The booking system has improved significantly, and we managed to complete the booking online with no problems.
On arrival at Attleborough station I noticed that there was a temporary car park in use, due to building work close by. This meant lots of uneven gravel tracks to contend with, as well as large puddles as it was raining quite heavily. Fortunately, my Efoldi power chair managed the terrain with no problem. Attleborough station is luckily one of the few step-free stations, and I drove up the slope to access the platform, where I then waited for my train.
When the train arrived, the conductor put the ramp down, and I drove straight up and onto the train. My powered wheelchair is quite compact and small, so it was nice and manoeuvrable. To get to Great Yarmouth we had to change in Norwich. As the train arrived into Norwich station, I was pleased to see someone waiting there with a ramp. For my next train to Yarmouth, the train had level-boarding, so there was no need for a ramp which makes things so easy for wheelchair users. On the train, I also decided to test out the toilet facilities. Train toilets can be notoriously small, but there was more than enough room for my wheelchair, and there was still some space to move around without any problems.
Despite the heavy rain, when we arrived in Yarmouth, the trip itself had been relatively smooth, and hassle free. All the assistance worked brilliantly along the way, and my wheelchair made travelling by train, quite easy. But – it is worth reemphasising the fact that only about 20% of all train stations have step-free access. So, whilst the trains themselves are, in general, fairly accessible, it’s access to the train stations which very often represents the greatest challenge to wheelchair and scooter users. Most mobility scooters and wheelchairs can manage small pavement curbs or single steps, but they cannot negotiate a flight of steps. Some of the more lightweight, portable wheelchairs and scooters, like the Efoldi models, can be folded up quite easily and lifted up the steps if necessary. But other disabled travellers with less portable mobility equipment, could be excluded from using a large proportion of train stations which don’t have step-free access – unless local assistance allows. It’s essential, therefore, that disabled travellers always check the status of train station accessibility in advance of their journey.