I have been using trains throughout the UK and Internationally for 25 years from a time I was walking to now as an electric wheelchair user. I am the type of impaired rail user who never books assistance because I have found that with a smile and a friendly attitude, staff are often 99% happy to assist you if you just turn up, which should be my right to do so. So when I encounter a situation like I faced on Saturday, I am really not amused.
I went with my volunteer to Lee Valley Whitewater Centre to try Hydrospeeding and Hotdogging, which is in Waltham Cross, London. Before I went, I spent some time on Google Maps finding the most accessible I assumed and quickest route possible, deciding to stick with trains as well as giving me plenty of time to arrive on time and hopefully early.
Getting from Coventry to Euston with Virgin Trains was easy as I know the route very well. We walked to St Pancras and caught the Southeastern Javelin train to Stratford International, a 6-minute journey. Then a quick and interesting walk straight through the Westfield shopping centre to the original Stratford station. And this is where it all started to go wrong.
We needed to catch the Abelilo Greater Anglian train to Waltham Cross, a 20-minute journey. Due to poor signage, it firstly took us a while to find the right platform and only with assistance. Once on the platform, the train was late and when it arrived the staff appeared frozen for a few minutes before getting the ramp for me to board the train. As we were boarding, a member of staff suddenly said: “Oh, you need to get off at Tottenham Hale because Waltham Cross is unmanned”!
At Tottenham Hale, a brash duty manager said she booked a special accessible taxi as there were none at the station and we just had to wait. Looking outside, I could see that there were plenty of taxis that would take my chair. I explained this to her, and her reply was “not one that we are prepared to pay for”.
We waited almost an hour for the taxi, which was just a black cab that was nothing particularly special but still ok. The journey then took a good 40 minutes, but we managed to convince the driver to take us straight to the watersports centre.
The Hydrospeed was booked for 1.30pm, and it was now 2.30pm! We had missed it but luckily we could go on the next session at 3.30pm! We had a great time and finished up, changing out of wetsuits, etc., around 6ish.
We were a bit at a loss to how to proceed to get home. So we firstly walked to Waltham Cross station. No staff but there was a lift and a ramp (locked) on the Platform heading towards Stratford. A train arrived and with help from our passengers; the driver was alerted that I needed assistance which he, for his wisdom, point blank refuse to do. I know other train operators would be far more helpful!!!
So we walked to the bus station and caught the bus to Tottenham Hale that took 1 hour before 1/2 mile to the station. We came back here before I had assumed since we had been dumped here originally, it was accessible, it was modern looking enough. Upon arriving at the station, I went from relief to confusion to total annoyance as it dawned on me there was no lift to the platform we needed! This is the point I lost it, demanding if there was no lift the station must close on the grounds of health and safety since it had been the law for over 20 years!
The same brash duty manager, who was now booking another taxi to Stratford, made the excuse it was a Victorian building. As we were waiting another hour in the waiting room, I was impressed at seeing the modern escalator, glass walls and ticket gates were apparently a part of the original Victorian design, as it would have needed the assistance of Doctor Who to achieved this!
Waiting another 15 minutes outside for the same taxi as before, we slowly realised the last Virgin Train home was at 9.43pm and at was now 9pm, and basically we missed it and were now stuck overnight in London. I could not consider a coach because my wheelchair did not collapse.
So back to the relevant safety of St Pancras and the Euston Road, we had to book a room at the Premier Inn, costing £223 with breakfast! With no access to my evening meds, it was a painful night. We finally returned to Coventry 10.30am on Sunday, a full 24 hours since we left.
The mess was not because something went wrong but because Abelilo is a train operator who feels until now it has been acceptable to discriminate wheelchair users, but with my assistance, whether they want it or not, this is about to change so watch this space!