Coronavirus: Wheelchair Travel on Buses and Trains During a Pandemic
Updated: Jul 8, 2020
What’s it like to travel on buses and trains as a disabled person during the Coronavirus pandemic? Wheelchair user Shona Cobb guest blogs for Carrie-Ann Lightley, telling us all about her experience of travelling to London on public transport in a powerchair, in the era of COVID-19.
Like many disabled and chronically ill people, for the past few months, my life outside of my home has been made up of short trips around my local area to keep my powerchair batteries going, and that is it. I’m lucky that I’ve got family who are able to go to the supermarket and pharmacy for me, but it was only a matter of time until I’d need to leave the house properly myself. In the end, it was an essential echocardiogram scan that forced me out and into the wild. A trip into central London was not what I had in mind for my first proper trip outside! After having not been on a train in almost 4 months I felt like I was starting from square one again when it comes to travelling as a wheelchair user. The accessibility and assistance side of things are enough worries for one trip but add in a pandemic and I was definitely anxious, so I decided to document the whole day for you to provide some insight into what it’s like out there on public transport when you’re disabled.
Booking Wheelchair Assistance for Train Travel
Pre-pandemic I rarely booked assistance for my journeys into London, a combination of the staff knowing me well and the platforms being levelled out at the major Thameslink stations in London mean that things generally go smoothly without booking ahead. However, given current circumstances I did book for this journey as an extra assurance should anything go wrong. I had heard some nightmare stories at the beginning of lockdown about wheelchair users, in particular, being denied ramp assistance, so I wanted to make sure I was covered.
Is Bus Travel Still Wheelchair Accessible in the COVID Era?
My actual journey started off on the bus to the station, this journey happened after the rules came in about wearing a face covering on public transport and I was pleased that everyone else on the bus was wearing a mask, apart from the driver. I didn’t feel super comfortable scanning my bus pass as I was trying to limit my contact with surfaces as much as possible, in hindsight I wish I’d been more assertive and just requested the driver looked at my pass. On the bus, there were no seats cordoned off, apart from the front section, which I was surprised about given photos I’d seen on social media of other buses but thankfully people were using their common sense and giving each other plenty of space.
Coronavirus and Assisted Train Travel for Wheelchair Users
The train station was very quiet, with most staff wearing masks and even visors too. Most passengers had masks but some were wearing them around their necks, somewhat defeating the purpose. I was anxious about how busy the carriage with the wheelchair space would be, given that I had no choice in where I needed to sit, but I was happy to see it was completely empty. Staff were excellent when it came to the assistance, even putting me on an earlier train, it felt no different compared to pre-pandemic. As a powerchair user, I don’t need physical assistance from staff, other than them putting down the ramp, so I was able to keep my distance. They stepped back after putting down the ramp which I really appreciated. However, since staff were wearing masks and visors, I didn’t feel uncomfortable if they needed to come closer.
Social Distancing in London as a Wheelchair User
In London I was just about the only person wearing a mask in the streets, it really did look like it was just London on a sunny day. There were a few large groups of people around and this was the time I felt most unsafe. As a wheelchair user it’s very hard for me to move to keep my distance from people and so I rely on others to move for me and this definitely didn’t happen as much as I would like. Even when the pavements were wide people were still choosing to walk quite close to me. It frustrated me that not everyone is doing everything they possibly can to keep others safe. However, at the hospital it was like another world, I felt completely safe. Everyone was wearing a mask, we all had our temperature checked upon arrival and there were designated non-COVID entrances, everything was incredibly well organised.
Wheelchair Travel and Coronavirus – My Journey Home
On the return journey from Blackfriars most of the staff weren’t wearing masks, I’ve since been informed they don’t need to but after seeing most of the staff wearing masks and visors at my home station, I was surprised by this. Again there were lots of passengers without masks and those who weren’t wearing them properly, and I couldn’t spot anywhere in the station where you could get a mask if you needed one, apart from a vending machine. People gave me plenty of space on the train and assistance went smoothly again on the way back, pre-pandemic I had a lot of problems with Blackfriars not ringing ahead so I was relieved that things went well. But, when leaving the station I came across a lot of large groups of people, it really concerns me to see so many people have such little regard for the rules. Rules that are designed to keep us all safe. The bus home was busier but everyone was wearing a mask or face covering so I felt a lot safer than I did waiting for the bus with all these groups around me.
Final Thoughts About Accessible Travel and COVID-19
It really was such a relief for me that all my assistance went smoothly on this journey as that was one of my biggest worries, but by the end of the day, my anxiety about how many people weren’t following the rules was far greater. It was definitely a shock going from leaving the house about once a week, to then needing to travel into central London but in the end, the journey itself was a lot easier than I expected. I had this idea that trains would still be rammed but it was the quietest I’ve ever seen the trains and I think that should definitely be reassuring if you find yourself needing to travel.
My advice? Book assistance even if you don’t usually, don’t be afraid to speak up if you feel someone is too close and have someone to message throughout the day so you can check-in and express any anxieties if you need to.
About Shona Cobb
Shona Cobb has been writing her blog Shona Louise for nearly 9 years now, mostly covering disability and theatre. She’s a powerchair user, freelance writer and an activist, pushing to improve accessibility in public spaces and on public transport.
Read more from Shona on her blog: http://www.shonalouise.com/
Read my tips on managing throughout the pandemic as a disabled person.
I’m launching a new series on CarrieAnnLightley.com. I’ll be interviewing hotels and holiday cottages to show what measures they’ve put in place to make things safer for disabled travellers post-lockdown. If you’re interested in the future of safe, accessible travel, be sure to subscribe to my mailing list.