The debate around the proposed closure of railway station ticket offices got me thinking about the whole subject of using public transport as a visually impaired person.
I am pretty lucky as I am a reasonably independent person who is not daunted by the prospect of undertaking a journey.
I have family and friends in various places across England and Wales and need to travel to see them.
I do not have access to a car, so public transport is my only option.
So, let’s look at the various modes of transport from my perspective, as a traveller with a visual impairment who is sometimes accompanied by his guide dog, Harper.
My most frequent method of getting around my local area is by using buses.
I travel between Warwick, Leamington, Kenilworth and, sometimes Coventry using mostly Stagecoach services.
Without getting into the usual discussions about reliability and availability of services, which we all know are far from ideal, let us talk about the services themselves.
Bus journeys are fine if you know where you are, and where you are going.
BUT: Have you ever tried to read a bus timetable at the stop? It is almost impossible!
Often, the timetables are printed in small fonts and covered by dirty and scratched plastic. If you are lucky, there is an electronic display that gives you a rough idea of what the next bus is.
Many companies have apps to tell you what you need to know, but these can be difficult for a visually impaired person to use, and some do not work very well with voiceover technology.
When a bus arrives, you cannot always see the number and destination.
Sometimes, I must ask the driver what bus it is, and usually, they are happy to help.
I have a concessionary bus pass, so there is no fiddling around with money when I get on – I just touch the pass to the machine (assuming, of course, that I can find the machine!).
Once I’m on the bus, the next question is making sure I get off at the right stop.
The introduction of mandatory audio description on buses keeps being deferred by the Government – current legislation says it should be in place by October 2026, but I’m sceptical. I have travelled in London and Blackpool, where this is currently in operation, and it makes life so much easier.
I am OK travelling on routes I know well, and if you concentrate you can sometimes tell where you are by the movement of the bus.
Quite often though, I try to look through a dirty or steamy window to see landmarks.
If I am getting off at an unusual stop, or on a route I do not use often, I will ask the driver to tell me when to get off.
This usually works, but you cannot expect the driver to remember stops for everyone.
I travel by train quite a lot, particularly to Southport, West Wales, Blackpool, Sheffield, and Manchester.
Overall, my experiences are rather good. The assistance is usually excellent, friendly, and helpful, and staff are happy to go out of their way to make the journey work and make things as easy as possible for you.
They are not supposed to leave the station, but I have been walked between stations at Wigan most times when I have had to change there.
I must travel from Leamington Spa, rather than my local station at Warwick, which is unmanned most of the time.
I get around the complexity of trying to book tickets by using a booking website, I use Trainline, but there are plenty of others to choose from.
I book my tickets online, forward the booking reference to my mobile and pick them up from the ticket office.
I always book assistance nowadays and I meet the person at the ticket office most of the time. Generally, I book my assistance over the phone via the Chiltern Railways phone line.
It is easier that way, as some of my trips can involve multiple changes and talking it through with the operator gets it sorted.
The trains themselves vary greatly.
Cross Country trains are always so crowded that the trolley service seldom runs, so I cannot get refreshments.
Also, there is no room for Harper, and he often ends up lying in the aisle, which makes life difficult for other passengers as well.
Avanti West Coast put us in a wheelchair space at the end of a carriage unless I ask them to put us near the shop.
Chiltern Railways are usually very good and look after us when we travel to London. It has been known for the train manager to take pity and put us in first class on different routes, which helps.
Trams are better than buses. I have travelled on the trams in Blackpool, Nottingham, Manchester, and Sheffield.
The information is easier to read, they usually have audio descriptions on them and there is no step to negotiate when getting on or off.
Here, I am talking about private hire vehicles or taxis from a rank.
I know that some assistance dog owners have had issues with taxi drivers refusing to take their dogs.
I have never had this problem myself, but it does make you a bit apprehensive when you book one.
I have experienced drivers asking me to keep my dog away from them or put him in the back of the vehicle. This is a reasonable thing to ask, and I am happy to oblige.
I have flown a few times to Australia and found it a good experience.
Assistance at the airport is usually particularly good. They provide a wheelchair for their convenience, which is fine with me, and they get you through the queues at baggage reclaim and customs quickly.
My one experience of flying Ryanair was better than I had feared. The ground crew held the hordes back to give me more time to negotiate the steps.
There are sometimes problems with a lack of staff. This seems especially the case at Birmingham International, where I once almost missed my lift home because I had been sitting on the jetway waiting for nearly an hour because there were not enough staff to assist me.
Overall, I find that public transport is a bit of a mixed bag, but I still manage to get around reasonably well.
What has your experience been?
Community Engagement and Fundraising Officer