A disabled traveller and his friend are stranded in France after a nightmare journey both ways, where staff at rail company SNCF allegedly refused them ramp assistance on multiple occasions.
Wheelchair user Jacob Berkson travelled from London St Pancras station to Paris Gare du Nord on 30 November with a friend, Martin Hill, before transferring to Paris Montparnasse station in order to connect for the 15.18 train to Rennes.
However, when the train to Rennes arrived at the station, he says guards claimed there was “no time” to deploy the ramp in order to allow him to board the train.
“The Eurostar we were on was a bit delayed getting into Paris, so the connection at Gare du Montparnasse was tight,” Mr Berkson tells The Independent.
“We couldn’t get on the Metro between terminals because it’s not accessible, so we had to get the bus. This meant we arrived about five minutes before the train was due to leave, around 2pm.
“There were loads of train crew, maybe six to eight people there, and they looked like they were going to get us on the train but then the man in charge said there was no time.”
He was forced to wait for the next train to Rennes, the last of the day. Staff advised the pair to come back 30 minutes before departure time.
However, when that train arrived, he says, the same thing happened.
“[This time] the train guard said he couldn’t get the ramp because he didn’t have a code. He radioed through to the access team who said they wouldn’t do it. It wasn’t clear what the reason was. Their reasons kept changing but eventually they claimed there would be no one to get us off at Rennes,” says Berkson.
The train was stuck on the platform for 30 minutes, he says, while the guards explained that it was the fault of the passenger, not the rail operator, for not arriving earlier.
“We were getting a bit cross by this point, and the train left and we weren’t on it. It was the last train of the day. We went to the ticket office and the man there said it was my fault. I said it’s not my fault, I did what I was asked.
“I said, it says in big letters that you can arrive two minutes before the train and we were there long before that. He said, ‘Yes, but you’re disabled – you can’t expect the same thing’.”
In the end, the pair had to abandon the second leg of their journey and find wheelchair-accessible accommodation for the night.
“A nice lady called Fatima took us to the access team, who said to be there an hour before the train at 6am. We couldn’t find an accessible hotel at the last minute but through friends of friends eventually found an apartment fairly near the station,” says Mr Berkson.
However, bus links back from the last-minute apartment meant they also missed the 6am train.
Eventually the pair were able to take the 11am train onward to Rennes, 48 hours after first leaving London, and after paying for two new tickets.
“What I want to know is, why they need 48 hours notice?” asks Mr Berkson.
“What problem is that solving? What is it they can’t do without that notice?”
“Situations like that, being stuck, it’s like when your wheelchair breaks. That’s when you suddenly notice that you’re disabled. I had this experience before, years ago and I’ve always been a bit worried about it but last time I was in France they just got me on the train. Now it seems like they’ve gone backwards,” he adds.
To make matters worse, the two travellers are now stranded in Rennes as they have been unable to book a ramp-equipped SNCF train back to Paris.
“I don’t know how we’re going to get home. The train is booked for Tuesday 7 December. We called at the weekend and they said we still weren’t giving them enough notice to get the ramp,” says Mr Berkson.
“I’m going to the station today to talk to them but I don’t know what will happen.”
Astonished friend of the pair Sarah Lewis took to Twitter to draw attention to SNCF’s accessibility policies.
“God forbid a wheelchair user needs to travel unexpectedly, or fancies a spontaneous trip,” she tweeted.
“[They] need to come home and cannot afford to keep buying more train tickets they are then blocked from using.”
SNCF’s online accessibility policy says: “We recommend booking your assistance services in advance to ensure that they’ll be available. We’ll do what we can to accommodate passengers who arrive at the station without advance booking.”
It emphasises its free Accès Plus service, which can be booked at Paris Montparnasse but not at Rennes, and offers “Assistance offered to access the platforms and get on/off the train”.
Accessibility campaigners say inclusivity and flexibility for wheelchair users on transport is years behind where it should be – just last month a disabled activist reportedly died from complications associated with the loss of her custom wheelchair, which was destroyed during a United Airlines flight.
The Independent has contacted SNCF for comment.