This is what it’s like to move around Waverley Station, right now, in a wheelchair.
On a Saturday in January last year, I slipped on a patch of ice masked by snow. I felt my foot twisting inside my boot in a way it just shouldn’t have been meant to. I landed on thick snow, and that was the last time I walked anywhere without crutches for the next six weeks.
When the consultant looked at x-rays of my foot in March, he told me I had broken two phalanges and cracked a bone in my ankle. The day after I broke my foot I got a quick plaster cast and long crutches from the A&E department: a couple of days later I got an appointment at the fractures clinic and was fitted with a light removable cast called a moonboot, and elbow crutches – this was four days after the break and the sudden increase of mobility was just fantastic. I couldn’t carry a cup of tea, but I could prop myself up against the kitchen counter to fill the kettle.
Even so, for six weeks even the shortest flight of stairs was a barrier – climbing stairs with one foot in a cast and balance resting on crutches and your whole awareness raised of how fragile human bones can be if you fall wrong, is an exercise of risk and balance at best (it’s scary) and is horrifyingly exhausting.
I was staying with my partner in Livingston. My home and my cats are in Edinburgh. I went back the day after I got my moonboot cast. Access to the platform in Livingston was time-consuming but doable – there’s a long ramp with a manageable slope all the way down to the platform. Access boarding the train was fine: it was one step up from the platform. The seats by the door had been left vacant for disabled passengers, and temporarily I was just that. It was even easier leaving the train in Edinburgh, as it terminates there and all I had to do was wait to be the last passenger off and then take my time getting up and out.
And then I was standing in Waverley Station thinking about how to get out, and realising I had not thought this through.
Waverley Station was built where the Nor’ Loch was, in the steep-sided valley between Old Town and New. (Historical/geological note: the New Town was designed and built in the second half of the 18th century, it’s New because it’s only a couple of centuries old. The Old Town grew up over the past thousand or so years, along the ridge of stone that runs from the volcanic plug of rock on which Edinburgh Castle was built. The glacier that passed over that plug of rock gouged deep valleys either side.)
In 1846 the decision to build just there was obvious: the Old Town has literally nowhere for a railway station to be built, and the iconic and beautiful street plan of the New Town was not to be broken up with a newfangled railway line. Move far enough south from the high ridge of rock on which the Old Town stands and you’re into the Meadows, low-lying boggy ground beyond the University. Move far enough north from the New Town and the steep hillside slants down to the Water of Leith. Stop short at Haymarket? No way, said the railway engineers of the early 19th century, pioneering onward through the valley.
There are four exits from Waverley, to north, south, east, and west: all but one involves stairs. (Flickr set)
The Waverley Steps to Princes Street would have got me to the nearest handy bus stop for going home, but there was no way I could climb that stair. (There are moving staircases now for most of the way, but those aren’t good if you’re on crutches either.)
I could take the lift to the bridge and from there to Market Street, but there was a short flight of steps up to Market Street then – and getting out of Market Street to somewhere I could get a bus would have involved either climbing flights of steps or what felt like fairly long hike round the station into Princes Street.
I could – and usually would – have taken the back entrance out on to Calton Road, but that entailed two flights of steps at either end of the bridge out of the station, and then a steep hike up Calton Road to the top of Leith Walk.
Or I could have hiked up one of the ramps on to Waverley Bridge, the roadway entrances/exits to the station which are the only ones which have no stairs.
That’s what I did, later (I found my home unnavigable, and spent most of the next month in Livingston), when I was stronger and more sure on my crutches.
But that first day, I realised that though I couldn’t exactly afford it, the only realistic way out of the station for me at this point was to make my way to the taxi rank and hope there wasn’t a queue.
So that’s what I did. Getting into and out of taxis is complicated on crutches (I never got the hang of doing it gracefully) but it’s not half so exhausting as getting into or out of Waverley Station.
(Haymarket Station has lifts from each platform, but the bus home from there entails crossing a complicated junction and then changing buses at least once: at least at Waverley I was somewhat closer to home.)
I have good bones. They healed well. A year later, with the help of a NHS physiotherapist and Edinburgh Leisure fitness trainers, I’m pretty much back to my pre-fracture levels of fitness, except that my foot now aches in cold or damp weather. Sweet of it.
Network Rail say they want to ban cars and taxis – all motor traffic – from Waverley Station. Their initial story about this was:
“Network Rail has agreed to remove taxis and private vehicles for Edinburgh Waverley Station by the end of July 2012. Waverley is the last major station operated by Network Rail to allow private vehicles under the station roof and this has been designated as a security risk.”
“Network Rail is required to comply with legislation to remove vehicles prior to the London Olympic Games. The order applies to all major transport hubs across Britain. Network Rail has been working with Edinburgh City Council to examine options for an alternative location for a station taxi rank and drop-off area.”
Waverley Station is probably the only rail station in the UK that was built to fill a narrow, steep-sided valley. There are only two ramp exits in or out of Waverley, and both of them lead to Waverley Bridge, where the only regular bus stops are for the airport bus and the tour buses. Granted the tramworks on Princes Street make everything more difficult, but even without the tramworks, it’s a fair hike to get to the nearest real bus stop – and Waverley Bridge slopes uphill quite steeply as it reaches Princes Street.
Even after several weeks, when I was competent and secure on crutches, I couldn’t carry anything but a backpack until after I graduated to a single crutch and then to a stick – and I couldn’t carry anything very heavy or bulky then.
When I had to make a long train trip at the end of February, with three stops, and two items of luggage besides my backpack, I found that even when Travel Assistance had been booked well in advance, the odds of getting someone helpful and competent seemed to be exactly even – at one station I got two staff who complained that I was travelling with two suitcases I couldn’t lift myself (one had my clothes and so on for the weekend: one had stuff I’d committed to bring months earlier when I could easily have changed trains carrying both cases myself) and at another station, the Travel Assistance person just didn’t show up, leaving me stuck on the train. A helpful passenger went to get the guard, who called ahead to have someone meet me at the next station and help me change platforms and catch the next train back to my planned stop. (I met the Travel Assistance person there: she said she “hadn’t seen me” in the carriage and hadn’t liked to get on board the train in case it left while she was on it.)
My experience was delightful compared to Tanni Grey-Thompson’s, who had to crawl off the train when her booked Travel Assistance didn’t show up. And then there’s outright malice – watch this video for the wheelchair perspective of what it’s like when the railway staff are outright refusing to help, Qamar Khaliq’s experience in August 2010 when a ten minute rail trip home took two hours because the guard just would not put the ramp down so that his wheelchair could board the train.
I said a helpful passenger went to get the guard, but the fact is I burst into tears as the train left the station with me and the luggage I couldn’t carry. I had been looking forward to a wonderful weekend – even the snarky staff at the previous station hadn’t spoiled my good feelings – and I was suddenly hit with this reminder that on crutches, aboard a train, I was helpless. Once I could stop crying I called the friend I’d be staying with and explained what had happened and that I’d be late, and at that point the helpful passenger sitting nearby went off to find the guard: the train was exceptionally crowded and I doubt he would have happened to come by my seat any time soon.
Network Rail want to ban coaches, cars, and taxis from Waverley Station. They’ve come up with a range of excuses why this is a good idea, but I’m pretty certain the real reason is that if they get rid of the taxi rank at the south side of the station, they can have a new row of stalls or shops there.
Every taxi licenced to pick up passengers in Waverley Station has to pay Network Rail £800 a year. That’s a lot of money for the concession – but it’s nothing to what the ground rent from shops would bring in. The plans for a ban have been postponed (apparently the Olympics story was a lie) but not cancelled.
“We remain committed to implementing the proposed changes in the long term. However, we have listened to feedback from station users and have agreed to delay any action to remove vehicles to give us more time to address passenger concerns and to ensure alternative arrangements for taxis can be put in place.”
They didn’t consult with any disability groups before deciding to make the ban. They just announced it, and appeared startled by the outcry: I suppose none of the people making the decision had ever been in Waverley Station with a broken foot, on crutches, wondering how to get out. Nor I expect are any of them in wheelchairs, or have any other kind of mobility disability.
Though it may even be simpler than that; The decision-makers at Network Rail didn’t care about making Waverley Station, Edinburgh’s main railway station, virtually inaccessible to disabled travellers, because they don’t travel by train. For them, stations exist as moneymaking ganglions in the rail network, not as a means of helping passengers on and off trains.
It’s not only crutches and wheelchairs. Parents with babies in buggies, anyone travelling with luggage heavier than they can easily carry; tourist companies who want to be able to easily pick up and drop off their tour groups; if Waverley Station is the only UK station that still allows for taxis and cars and coaches to get in and out, well, it’s also a UK station that’s uniquely positioned. Steep-sided valley either side. They can’t build a ramp: they can’t build a regular lift.
Network Rail have said *handwave* that they’ll provide an alternate means of access to the station for people with mobility problems.
The only method I’ve thought of would be to build one of those lifts-in-a-pillar in the centre of the main concourse, a lift at least big enough for a wheelchair and a luggage trolley and two other people, which would need to rise to the level of Princes Street, through a specially-devised opening in the Victorian glass roof which is now being restored, and then build a bridge from the lift over the glass roof to Princes Street. That would be an extensive and considerable construction project, and there is no sign whatsoever that such a project is being included in Waverley Station’s current renovations. The odds of it being included after Waverley has been renovated and the famous glass roof restored? Small. To say the least.
As Alan Sked concisely points out in the Scotsman:
The situation we will have is taxis trying to pick up/drop off at three points.
The top of Waverley Steps, interfering with the Balmoral Hotel and bus stop space; Waverley Bridge, again interfering with bus stops and existing taxi rank; and Market Street, adjacent to a pedestrian crossing and metered parking spaces.
From the wonderful Latent Existence blog:
A2BForAll have launched their campaign to get fair treatment for all on public transport, in particular to get more access to public transport for disabled people. It has launched with a big presence in newspapers and on TV fronted by Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson and backed by Unity Law and the Disability Alliance.
Channel 4 News is doing a series of videos highlighting the problems that disabled people have in accessing public transport, starting with an excellent film last night, shown here.
Please sign the e-petition to fight discrimination against disabled passengers on UK public transport.
Take the A to B For All survey.
Write to the Department for Transport (contact page) and your would-be representatives on Edinburgh Council, who hopefully can make Network Rail listen:
“However, we have listened to feedback from station users and have agreed with the Department for Transport and Edinburgh City Council to delay to any action to remove vehicles to give us more time to address passenger concerns and to ensure alternative arrangements for taxis can be put in place.”
You may think you’re not disabled. But it just takes one slip, and there you are. Public transport is for everyone. Waverley Station needs to stay accessible. Tell Network Rail. Thank you.