This week we heard about Anne Wafula Strike in the news – not being able to access the toilet on a long train journey.
The fear of not finding a usable toilet (and risk urinating in your underwear or damaging your bladder and kidneys) is very real. It leaves disabled people choosing the more dignified option – to not make any long journeys by train or car. This leads to major life restrictions around work, health care, leisure and socialising or seeing family.
Until 6 years ago, I had never been on a train. I then had to get into London for specialist hospital services so we started using trains. With my husband, we carefully choose our stations – they have to be
- staffed – to set up ramps to get on and off . (Not all stations have staff present.)
- Step free access to the platform. (Some stations have no access to platforms or only access to some platforms in one direction).
It is here we bring into the equation – where will I be able to use the loo along the way.
Where are the usable toilets?
Our main route has been from Tonbridge to London Bridge and Maidstone to Victoria. From the moment I last use the loo at home, the clock starts ticking. I won’t drink anything that day to reduce the need for the loo.
Around an hour has passed and I’m at the station. The toilet door opens straight onto the platform – so my husband who lifts me out of my chair to/from the loo will have to slink out whilst I use it (without exposing me to people on the platform). He will then have to loiter and listen out for me to call him back in. He will get some funny looks – but that’s ‘normal’ for us. It’s not a private affair.
There is no hoist – so he will have to lift/drag me to the seat. On the plus side it’s clean and has all 3 of the standard set of support rails to cling on to.
I can’t travel by train to London with my personal assistants as they can only use a hoist to lift me and there are no rail stations with hoist equipped toilets on my route or at my destination.
On the train
On the train, I need to get assistance into the accessible carriage. This is where the accessible toilet is located. However, on the way home we are sometimes just put in the doorway area because not all trains have accessible carriages or are too full at rush hour. They have no access to the toilets. Staff just want to get people on trains or are they see the accessible coach is a long way away – so they try to board you into the nearest coach with no wheelchair space.
I can’t use the toilets on trains because my small powerchair won’t fit and there is no space for my husband to lift me. They don’t have hoists. You can see here that if my chair was next to the loo – my husband would not fit in at all. Alas I haven’t mastered levitation.
I often see they are out of order. If I needed the loo I’d have to get staff to cancel the ramp at my destination- and make new arrangements for me to get off at another station – and back on another train after using the loo. As I’ve just said, stations might be no go areas because they are not step free or staffed.
If it is possible to get off at another station, what if the toilet on that station isn’t usable? Not every toilet has the ‘standard’ space, suppport rails etc. Take this one for example.
We were a few hours on a train for a day out at Ely. My husband had worked out we could use the toilet at the station. He’d even seen a picture on the station’s website. However, we headed straight for the loo only to find the support rail was not standard / too far away from the toilet to hold on to. I would have fallen on the floor. I had heart failure because we were in a new place with no idea where to find a toilet.
On our way back from Ely to Kings Cross the same problem but thankfully on the left hand side (I need a right hand side rail as it’s the only way I can lean). For someone else this won’t be usable. This toilet is also higher than the recommended standard for safe and manageable transfers from a wheelchair.
Trains and stations – will they ever be accessible?
I haven’t heard that newly refurbished stations like London Bridge or Cross Rail will have made any improvements to accessing toilets at stations across London. No toilets with larger spaces or hoists being put in. No refurbishing or auditing of current toilets to ensure all access features are present and correctly positioned or offer better privacy.
I’ve been part of consultations on toilet provision on new trains. The designs did not involve larger spaces or better layouts for wheelchair users.
There is never a guarantee the toilet will be in working order – but if all stations had improved, usable wheelchair accessible toilets on all platforms, we could at least get off the train at the next staffed station and be confident that I could pee into the loo and not into my knickers.