By Laura Kemp • 07 December 2021 • 13:31
A disabled train passenger and his friend are stranded in France after SNCF allegedly refused to get a wheelchair ramp on multiple occasions.
Jacob Berkson is a wheelchair user who was travelling with a friend, Martin Hill, from London St Pancras station to Paris Gare du Nord on November 30 before transferring to Paris Montparnasse station to connect for the 3:18pm train to Rennes.
However, when the train to Rennes arrived guards told the travellers that there was “no time” to set up the wheelchair ramp so that Mr Berkson could board the train.
He told The Independent: “The Eurostar we were on was a bit delayed getting into Paris, so the connection at Gare du Montparnasse was tight.”
“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 15.10.”
“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, which was the last departure of the day. Staff told the friends to come back to the station 30 minutes before the train was due to depart.
However, Mr Berkson says that when that train arrived 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.”
The train waited on the platform for 30 minutes, however, the guards argued with Mr Berkson about the protocol of the ramp and accused the situation of being his fault 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’.”
The pair ultimately had to abandon the journey and find suitable 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 7am. 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, the bus from their accommodation meant that they arrived at 6:15am and the accessibility office at the station was closed, meaning they also missed their 7am train.
They were eventually able to travel on the 11am train to Rennes, two new tickets later and 48 hours after their nightmare journey began.
“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 suck, 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.”
The two travellers are now stranded in Rennes because they have not been able to book a ramp-equipped SNCF train back to Paris.
Mr Berkson says: “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.”
“I’m going to the station today to talk to them but I don’t know what will happen.”
A friend of the pair Sarah Lewis took to Twitter to highlight 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 highlights 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.”
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Originally from UK, Laura is based in Axarquia and is a writer for the Euro Weekly News covering news and features.
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