No more excuses! Equal access to rail travel is overdue

8 May 2018

By Yannis Vardakastanis, President of the European Disability Forum

Want to catch a train in the next hour? All you need to do is buy a ticket, turn up and go. If I wanted to do the same, it wouldn’t be possible. As it stands, EU law doesn’t give me a right to travel by train when I want to. It is time to change the law.

Most people take their right to take the train for granted - I don’t. But now that Members of European Parliament are finalising their amendments on the EU rail passengers’ rights regulation, will I get the same rights as other Europeans?

One in six people in the EU has a disability. Most trains and railway stations in Europe are still inaccessible [1]. As a consequence, 80 million EU citizens with disabilities and millions of other passengers with reduced mobility still can’t travel across Europe independently. I am one of them.

As a blind man I need assistance to ensure I catch the right train. For a wheelchair user, what is needed may be a ramp to board the train at the station of their choice. However, EU law requires us to give 2 days’ notice to get the assistance we need, even for our daily commutes.

Think about it.

I am blind, so I can’t drive. Travelling by train should be easy but in reality, this is what happens:

If there’s good weather and I want to go to the beach, I can’t travel by train. If I have an urgent family issue and need to travel to another city to see relatives, I can’t travel by train. If I urgently need to see a doctor in another city, I can’t travel by train.

We can’t travel like everyone else. It is frustrating, annoying and time-consuming. In short, it is unacceptable.

Think we can all access rail travel? Think again!

We all need to travel to work, to go to appointments, to visit friends and family or to attend last minute meetings. Can you imagine what it’s like to have no right to independent, spontaneous travel? What it’s like to have no access to affordable options for urgent travel? For passengers with disabilities who need assistance, there is no effective right to spontaneous rail travel across Europe. Prenotification rules to get assistance are obsolete, disproportionate and discriminatory – they must be abolished.

Making rail infrastructure and vehicles fully accessible is part of the solution, but such changes will not happen overnight. In the meantime, we want the right to ‘turn up and go’ at any station and get the assistance we need to catch our trains. This should be part of standard 21st century customer service everywhere in the EU, at each rail station and for every train.

Equal access to transport is a human rights issue. The EU and all its Member States have now ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) and the Convention includes an obligation on all states parties to give persons with disabilities access to transportation on an equal basis with others [2]. In short, the current review of the EU regulation on rail passengers’ rights must deliver equal access to rail travel.

It is time to deliver on these obligations, so let me be clear:

A requirement to provide 2 days’ notice to get assistance is not equal access.

A requirement to provide any sort of notice to get assistance is not equal access.

Prenotification requirements to get assistance for rail travel are discriminatory by design – these rules belong to the dustbin of history.

Equal access means putting an end to prenotification requirements.

European citizens expect the right to travel spontaneously – the right to ‘turn up and go’. European citizens with disabilities have the same expectations. Enshrining discriminatory provisions in a regulation on the rights of passengers would be against the spirit and the letter of the UNCRPD.

I have been experiencing barriers to my freedom for decades. Millions of European citizens with disabilities experience those same barriers on a daily basis.

Enough is enough.

With political will, barriers can be removed. As President of the European Disability Forum, and as someone with a disability, I will not accept rules that would perpetuate discrimination.

EU legislators have a personal and collective responsibility to deliver equal access to rail travel for all citizens.

We want the right to ‘turn up and go’. No more excuses. Prenotification must go. Make it happen.

Notes to editors:

[1] There are common examples of barriers to travel in our 2015 report on the situation of passengers with disabilities – you can also read our position paper on the recast of the Regulation on Rail Passengers’ Rights (1371/2007)

[2] UNCRPD see article 4 (General Obligations); article 9 (Accessibility) and article 20 (Personal Mobility)

Yannis Vardakastanis has more than 30 years of disability advocacy experience, holding a variety of international posts through which he has actively promoted the rights of persons with disability. Originally from Zakynthos, Greece, Mr. Vardakastanis served as Special Advisor for the education of students with disabilities to the Minister of Education; Delegate at the Greek Ministry of Labour on disability issues; and Managing Director of the National Institute for the Protection of Deaf and Hard of Hearing People, among other posts. For the last 19 years, Mr. Vardakastanis has served as President of the European Disability Forum (EDF), and chairs different commissions and committees in several European and international disability NGOs. Concurrently, he also served as Chair of International Disability Alliance (IDA) from 2012 to 2014. Mr. Vardakastanis earned a degree in political science from University of California, Berkeley and has been active in the National Confederation of Disabled People in Greece (N.C.D.P.), serving as its President since 1993.

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