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Rail Today - Rail Tomorrow?

Rail Today - Rail Tomorrow?

John Welsman considers how developments in train travel have effected the travelling experience of vision-impaired rail users

For many vision-impaired people, travel is often a stressful task undertaken with some trepidation. The ability to step outside the front door, jump in a car and drive to your destination in relative comfort and a reasonable time, is a dream for most people with little or no sight.
The alternative is the public transport system.

Historically, vision-impaired people have often felt that they are not part of the “public” that the transport system was originally designed to serve. Times are changing now and technology is making a significant contribution to reducing some of the sources of stress for vision-impaired travellers.

When it comes to rail travel, the most noticeable change to trains and stations in many parts of the UK has been the introduction of audible announcements. For me audible announcements are still not as prevalent throughout stations as they need to be (some concourses are still silent for example), but once you have arrived at the correct platform you should hear announcements for the time and destination of the next train together with the stations it will visit on its journey.
The same goes for trains. The announcements tell you the stops on your journey, also the next station, and confirmation of the current station and onward destination when you have joined the train.
Train operators now recognise that audible information is vital to many customers and, indeed, are regulated to provide it. In my experience there are still times that announcements are not working correctly, or leave little time to act if you are on the wrong platform or train, but overall information has vastly improved over the last decade.

Visual information
Another innovation is the introduction of passenger information screens, with large bright text on a clear contrasting background. Even better than audible information, these screens provide a traveller with various destinations, departure times and platform information.
The same information that is announced on newer trains is often displayed on passenger information screens in carriages, with destination information displayed on the outside of some trains. Whilst this information is not legible for all vision-impaired travellers, the combination of speech and easy-to-see visual-displays eases the anxiety and greatly reduces the risk of getting on the right train.

On some journeys, where accessible information is not available, some vision-impaired people use their mobile phone or personal digital assistant to assist with reaching their destination successfully. With the advancement of satellite technology, a vision-impaired traveller can get information about points of interest along their route. This enables the user of GPS (Global Positioning systems) technology to pre-program information about key stations throughout their journey. By putting the post code and geographical information about your destination into your satellite device, you can get announcements about that location in speech or large text prior to, or when you reach it.
Some mobile phones can be enhanced with the use of text enlargement and speech output software. The most popular being Talks from Nuance. www.nuance.com/talks. This combined with a satellite receiver and software like Wayfinder or Wayfinder Access www.wayfinder.com , can enhance travel for someone with little or no sight.

Before you leave
www.nationalrail.co.uk provides up-to-the-minute departure information and the ability to plan journeys, at the time, date and route that best suits you. It does not yet have a simple means of planning a station to station journey in light of your access needs, however its Station Information details do describe each station’s accessibility. In this aspect, users of the London Underground are at an advantage, as its stations are mapped in detail on www.directenquiries.com – this website sets the standard in information and I hope it will not be long before national rail companies follow its example. At present, with regard to national rail, it is possible to get precise information of the layout of the station you are using or passing through. www.describe-online.com has been developed with the needs of vision-impaired people in mind. However, this website has yet to establish robust detailed coverage for the whole of the national network.

To this end, why not ring National Rail Enquiries on 0845-7484950, preferably 24 hours before you travel, so that customer services staff on the stations throughout your journey can help you get from one platform to another and catch the right train? If you know the name of the operator you will be travelling with, why not call them direct? www.disabledpersons-railcard.co.uk/making-rail-travel-easier has the contact details you need.

If you are planning journeys in advance, why not try booking tickets online or over the phone, to save queuing at the station? Tickets are available from most train company and there are a growing number of online retailers such www.raileasy.co.uk .

If you’re at the station the obvious way to buy a ticket is from the ticket office. You will find that most staff are trained to anticipate the needs of vision-impaired people. This is essential as transactions at ticket office windows are rarely straight-forward as the tickets and money usually have to be exchanged through either a turntable or a drop-tray in the counter.

It’s useful to note that many stations now have touch-screen ticket vending machines to compliment staffed ticket offices. I wonder whether it might be feasible that one day people will be able to put their Disabled Persons Railcard into these machines so that they can identify the best way to convey information (such as enlarging the text on the screen or have information spoken by the machine itself).
Of course, if you have poor sight neither large text nor audible information can overcome the difficulty of having to locate the right part of the touch screen. That said, at some busy stations such as London Euston staff are often available to help you use vending machines.

Looking ahead
As of yet there is no easy way for a vision-impaired person to buy a ticket without assistance; although there are some clever devices in development that I believe could be used to overcome this problem.
The first is the mobile phone. Mobile phones have and could be equipped with features that would enable any traveller to pay for a journey, before or whilst travelling. Bluetooth, a short range wireless system built in to most phones, could be used to transmit information about your journey to the payment system, also telling you, whilst you stand on the platform or when on a train, information about your journey.

Or perhaps a type of smart credit card (like the Oyster Card currently used to travel in the Greater London area) could emerge to negate the need to pay for journeys prior to travelling. The card, which could be linked to your credit card, would be triggered when you swipe it over a sensor before proceeding through the barrier at the start of your journey. Once you have reached your destination, the card is triggered once again and the appropriate fare is then deducted from your credit card.
The card could also alert staff on your arrival at the barrier, so that assistance could be offered. Perhaps on entering a train, your card could also trigger the announcements in your carriage to be more comprehensive or descriptive (without alerting any other passenger to the enhanced service you are receiving). It is even feasible that the card could tell on-board staff where you are seated, so that the buffet trolley can come and find you!

Of course, no solution is without its problems. How would one identify the card from the array of credit and leisure cards in your wallet? Will the scanning device on all stations be easy to locate? And if so, what about using it? Experience with Chip & PIN terminals has shown that they can come in all shapes and sizes.

For the vision-impaired person who wants to be as mobile as possible, The Guide Dogs for the Blind Association www.guidedogs.org.uk can provide a range of supportive mobility solutions, including the flexibility of a Guide Dog itself. Guide Dogs are welcome on all of the UK’s public transport system.
This article is not an exhaustive list of the issues faced by vision impaired people, or for that matter, a comprehensive list of solutions. But what I hope, dear reader, is to give you some idea of how travel is in reality for the UK’s estimated 2 million vision impaired travellers.