BritRail—United Kingdom

 

Britrail, the national rail network of the United Kingdom, is made up of over two dozen regional rail carriers. These regional carriers provide rail service to Scotland, Wales, and England. To complement this regional service, high-speed Eurostar trains travel under the English Channel to connect the United Kingdom with continental Europe. Under the provisions of the Disability Discrimination Act of 1995, all these regional rail companies are required to provide service to passengers with disabilities. Access varies from do-able to excellent, depending on the route you choose. The first step in planning a BritRail trip is to determine where your journey will begin. Although this sounds like simplistic advice, it’s really quite useful because the rail company that services your departure station is responsible for access arrangements throughout your entire rail journey. This applies even if you travel on several other regional rail companies throughout your trip. Contact National Rail Enquiries in the United Kingdom at +44 8457 484 950 or visit nationalrail.co.uk to find out what regional rail company services your departure station. Ask for the phone number or website of the local rail company and contact them directly to make the arrangements for your entire rail journey. According to the BritRail public relations department, you can make accessible arrangements directly with BritRail; however, in practice this method doesn’t really work. My friend Carol tried this method while she was planning her recent trip to Britain. Carol says of her experience, “When I called BritRail here in the United States, none of the agents could answer my questions regarding access, or make the appropriate arrangements for me. In fact they hadn’t the foggiest idea of what to do with me, or even where to begin. Unfortunately, I got similar results on all my inquiries directly to BritRail. I got the best results when I dealt directly with the regional rail companies.” In truth, BritRail’s primary function is to sell rail passes to overseas travelers. These rail passes are good for unlimited train travel over a specific period of time, and they can be a great bargain if you plan to do a lot of train travel. So, plan your route, check out the access, and then calculate your fares. If a rail pass proves to be a bargain, then buy it directly from BritRail before you leave home. Don’t rely on BritRail for access information, because you will literally be left waiting at the station. Although access varies from one regional rail company to the next, some general guidelines hold true throughout the system. Generally, you will find the best access in the manned stations in the larger cities. Access to the rural stations varies widely, and in some cases wheelchair-users even have to be carried up steps. Accessible ground transportation is also more difficult to find in the smaller rural stations. Remember to ask a lot of questions regarding station access when you make your reservations. The best method is to ask the employee to describe the station access, rather than to just ask if it is accessible. Even if they say the station is accessible, it’s always good to follow up with, “How many steps are there?” You’ll be surprised at how many times the answer will be, “Only two.” The maximum width for wheelchairs is 26.5 inches and the maximum length is 47 inches aboard BritRail trains. None of the regional rail companies will officially carry scooters; however, says Carol of her recent BritRail trip, “Nothing was ever said to me about my scooter, and my feeling is that scooter-users should be OK if your scooter measures less than the maximum allowable wheelchair. You must be able to maneuver in tight quarters. If you primarily use your scooter for distance, don’t try it, as accessing many of the wheelchair spots requires some tight turns.” You should confirm your reservation and access arrangements at least 24 hours in advance and even further ahead in peak travel seasons. And always allow plenty of time for connections. Eurostar service to continental Europe is a great deal, as wheelchair-users get to ride in first class while paying coach fares. Two designated seating areas are available for wheelchair-users (and their companions) in first class coaches 9 and 10. Wheelchair-users are allowed to stay in their own chairs in these seating areas. It should be noted that the boarding gangway is 29.5 inches wide. Accessible toilets are also located in coaches 9 and 10. These toilets have doorways that are 27.5 inches wide. It’s great to travel on the Eurostar, as you can be in Paris in just under 3 hours. Says my friend Mark of his Eurostar Experience, “It was a smashing 3-hour trip, and even though I didn’t get the free meal, I could access the toilet. It’s a great deal for wheelers.” For more information about accessible services on Eurostar trains, call +44 1233 617 575 or visit eurostar.co.uk. Although not entirely rail-related, the Smooth Ride Guide to the United Kingdom is an excellent resource. In addition to contact information for the various regional rail companies, this handy guide contains detailed accessibility information on hotels and attractions throughout the United Kingdom. It’s available for $16 (plus $9 shipping and handling) from Smooth Ride Guides at +44 1279-777 966. I highly recommend it!