Thursday

16th Sep 2021

Opinion

How EU trains discriminate against the disabled

  • '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?' (Photo: Erwyn van der Meer)

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.

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Most people take their right to take the train for granted - I don't. But this week the EU Council 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.

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 two 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.

Pre-notification 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.

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 two days' notice to get assistance is not equal access.

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

Pre-notification 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 pre-notification 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 Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities (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. Pre-notification must go. Make it happen.

Author bio

Yannis Vardakastanis is president of the European Disability Forum.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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