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'No-one else has to do this' - Irish Rail criticised over new travel plans for wheelchair users

Today Irish Rail invited people with disabilities to take a train ride from Connolly to Howth to talk about changes to the service.

DART Accessibility Improvement Pilot Programme-1 Sean Kelly from Dalkey boards the Dart as part of the launch of Irish Rail's Dart Accessibility Improvement Pilot Programme. Source: RollingNews.ie

SOME WHEELCHAIR USERS have criticised Irish Rail’s new pilot project to make using trains easier for people with disabilities, saying the plans don’t go far enough.

The national rail company today announced that wheelchair users who wish to use Dart services can give four hours advance notice to station staff that they will be travelling, so that ramps can be retrieved.

Up until now, stations required 24 hours’ notice from a wheelchair user. However disability activists say this new four hour notice period is still too long.

At an Irish Rail launch today aiming to acknowledge the progress made in the past few years, some wheelchair users spoke about the difficulties they had attending the Irish Rail event itself due to a lack or staff to help them off the trains.

One wheelchair user who was invited to the event said ticket machines were difficult for him to use because of the height they were at; protesters spoke about the complications they had experienced with phoning ahead to organise a ramp.

In order for wheelchair users to get on the train, they have to phone 24 hours ahead to ensure there’s an Irish Rail staff member present to help them on the train with a ramp.

But because many stations don’t have a staff member manning them 24/7, wheelchair users are sometimes left stranded at stations or on trains.

To address this, Irish Rail have announced that there will be 13 zones or ‘hubs’. Each ‘hub’ will include four stations and be manned by a staff member who will travel between each station to help people on and off trains. Users are still required to give four hours notice for this, but Irish Rail say that they aim to try to cut that timeframe down further depending on the results of the pilot.

Irish Rail spokesperson Barry Kenny said that the service would be focused on creating a relationship between passengers and Irish Rail staff.

“Users and our employees get to know each other get to know regular use, and so a pattern develops and the user is booked in every day for regular journeys.”

DSC_1525 Twins Anne and Margaret Kennedy are both wheelchair users. Source: Gráinne Ní Aodha

Wheelchair users Margaret and Anne Kennedy were part of a protest at today’s event that criticised what they called Irish Rail’s “celebration of discrimination” and said it was “offensive” to ask those with disabilities to phone ahead when no-one else had to give prior notice.

If we want to get a train we should be able to get it. Nobody else has to [give notice]. What it actually means is that we’re still controlled.

Margaret said that she had arranged prior notice for Saturday morning, but decided not to go out because she was too ill.

“Last night I arranged to come here this morning, and the man blitzed me in Bray, absolutely blitzed me. ‘Where were you on Saturday morning? Why weren’t you there? Why didn’t you phone up to cancel?’ I said I’m just too ill to do all this.”

She said she was made feel like she “was causing trouble for Irish Rail”, when in actual fact “I shouldn’t even have to do that”.

DSC_1524 Dr Margaret Kennedy says asking wheelchair users to give 4 hours notice was "offensive". Source: Gráinne Ní Aodha

Margaret’s twin Anne said usually the staff are very good, but said that it wasn’t normal to have to give notice of plans to use the service.

In response to these incidents, Irish Rail’s Barry Kenny said that ”the advisory notice period has never been a compulsory notice period”.

“So moving from 24 hours to 4 hours is an improvement but we have dozens of customers everyday that don’t provide notice and assistance is provided.”

He said that in an ideal situation they would like for people to call up if they’ve notified ahead and they would like to cancel, but he said it wasn’t compulsory. When asked about suggestions of having an Irish Rail employee on each train or Dart, Kenny said that it wasn’t planned at present.

“This pilot programme is about improving reliability. If you are reliant on a service, you don’t want people being stressed, you don’t want people having doubt that that assistance will come, it is about ensuring that people have faith in the system, and when you have dedicated stations that can provide assistance that that’s a solution.”

He said that what’s been proposed is not perfect, but was “an improvement on what’s there”.

Fianna Fáil’s spokesperson on disability Margaret Murphy O’Mahony said that she was “concerned” about the potential for two or more people with disabilities seeking to use a Dart service at the same time, with just one staff member manning four stations.

“How can we expect one staff member to service all of these stations?” she asked.

DSC_1529 Tom and Andrew, who travelled from Balbriggan together, and their guide dogs Gatsby and Niko. Source: Gráinne Ní Aodha

Tom O’Neill and Andrew Greene, who both travelled from Balbriggan today to take part in Irish Rail’s trip from Connolly Station to Howth to discuss train access for those with disabilities, both have vision impairments.

Andrew said that the Irish Rail service is “brilliant” and that his guide dog Niko helps him walk with a sense of “purpose”.

In the 35 years that Tom has been using Irish Rail, he’s said that there have been vast improvements to the service. For him, the most helpful changes have been the bumps on the ground near the edge of the platform, and the regular audio announcements.

But there are still some changes left to be made:

“Like at Platform 5 here there’s a bend on the platform and straight trains, so you’ve gaps. But I suppose, what they’ve done – Irish Rail have customer service staff.”

He said the “sheer volume” made things a little tricker as there are less seats available, but most of the time someone will offer their seat.

Tom added that his guide dog Gatsby helps break the ice on public transport, as happened to him on his way to the Irish Rail event today.

“A fella was sitting beside me. He said ‘Are you getting off at Connolly?’ I said I was. And he said can I give you an elbow getting off the train, and I said yes.”

Kenny said that the function of train stations was now shifting from focusing on ticket sales to a customer service focus, and listening to the requirements of those with disabilities was part of that.

Read: New system on the Dart to slash the notice needed for wheelchair users to access service

Read: After 10 years, Ireland is to finally ratify UN Convention on rights of people with disabilities

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