Bernina Express in a Wheelchair: Rhaetian Railway blame the victim

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On the Bernina Express recently, there was no wheelchair space in the panoramic coach despite my booking the wheelchair space months in advance. Rhaetian Railway, which runs the service, didn’t even warn me before I arrived.

tl;dw (Too Long, Didn’t Watch) – This caused me great distress, as it was a bucket-list trip I had been planning and looking forward to for months. The train company didn’t even warn me that there wouldn’t be my booked wheelchair space. I eventually forced my way onto the train but had to transfer into a seat and fold my wheelchair up. I had to get my companion to carry my wee in a bag to a toilet, as there wasn’t an accessible one. The train company subsequently explained that the accessible coach had been replaced with an inaccessible one due to an air conditioning fault. They gave me a free drink and offered a 56 CHF refund (£48.70), which I find insulting.

I have received their report of the incident (through a Right of Access Request.) The results demonstrate a common tactic of discriminatory organisations: to gaslight, blame and lie about the disabled person.

In domestic abuse, there’s a common term for the undermining behaviour of abusers: DARVODeny, Accuse, Reverse Victim and Offender. Mine is a very different situation from domestic abuse, but I do find the term “DARVO” apt for Rhaetian Railway’s response.

Incident Report

Their incident report is in German. Here are my English translations of the relevant bits.

Description:
On train 974, we had no accessible carriage despite a wheelchair reservation having been made on 16th April. The passenger was uncooperative; he refused to travel on the next train and also wouldn’t travel in the Allegra unit at the front of this train. We called the border police to find a suitable solution for both parties. In the end, the passenger got on the train, thanks to the staff in Tirano. In consequence, we left Tirano with a 42-minute delay. We gave the customer a free drink (15 Swiss francs) because there was no accessible carriage. The person accompanying the passenger took a video of us, but the police found nothing on his mobile phone.

Detail:
As a rule, all Bernina Express trains have two First Class carriages: one “normal” and one for disabled people.
Unfortunately, this composition is not always possible for various reasons.
Messages about wheelchairs arrive months in advance. They are not always confirmed or accurate. For example, whether it is an electric or manual wheelchair.
We have had problems of this kind before, but the passenger has always shown understanding and accepted our solution.
In this case, the passenger behaved disrespectfully towards the other passengers on the train.
In the end the passenger could get out of the wheelchair and the wheelchair could also be loaded on board.
Our engineer removed the seat in front of the passenger’s watchful eyes. The engineer then had to reinstall the seat because the passenger requested to sit on the seat, not in the wheelchair.

This is untrue and profoundly offensive on multiple levels.

  1. They seem to think it is OK to sometimes run a train without wheelchair access to the panoramic coaches. I don’t.
    They have as much duty to accommodate wheelchair users as to accommodate anybody else. We have a right to our booked accommodation.
    The idea that having an accessible carriage is “not always possible for various reasons” totally undermines wheelchair users’ rights. Other train operating companies don’t have this approach.
    The Bernina Express webpage says, “There are special seats available on the Bernina Express for passengers with impaired mobility who cannot leave their wheelchair.” It doesn’t say there usually or often are wheelchair spaces or that they aim to provide such—it says there are such, as there always should be (and always are in the UK).
  2. Their problem with the frequent inaccuracy of wheelchair booking information is irrelevant (albeit telling in itself!). They knew I could not walk and had booked the wheelchair space—as shown in the booking confirmation in their report. They had my reservation, including my phone number. The very least they should have done was contact me to warn me my booked space was unavailable. They did not.
  3. Why should I show “understanding” and “accept their solution“? Non-disabled people aren’t expected to forego their booked accommodation in the panoramic coach or to travel on a later train because the train company hasn’t provided their seats – and they would have a legitimate gripe if treated like this.
    As friends put it, “Nobody complained before. So why are you? Classy.” and “We expect the disableds to accept whatever “solution” we offer. We offer them an excellent Hobson’s choice.
  4. We repeatedly told the engineers not to remove the seats. The engineers removed them anyway.
    The police and staff agreed with my suggestion that I use the wheelchair lift to reach the interior doorway and transfer directly onto the nearest seat. The engineers then arrived and started removing the seat I needed to transfer into. We told them not to do so multiple times, in both English and Italian. We also told the other train staff, who relayed to the engineers in Italian. The engineers ignored us and continued removing the seats against our instructions. This is demonstrated incontrovertibly in my video.
    They then indicated that they intended to lift me out of my wheelchair, fold it, move it to the wheelchair space, and then lift me back into it. That idea is ridiculous and dangerous – for any disabled person and the staff. I’m not light!
    To frame this as me silently watching them remove the seat and making them reinstall it because I chose not to sit in my wheelchair is an absurd and demonstrable lie. I would much rather sit in my wheelchair (and have access to the toilet, etc.) but it simply wasn’t possible.
  5. Their accusation that my carer was filming them is unjustified and an inaccurate slur. He was not.
    The reason the police couldn’t find the videos on his phone is because he didn’t video it. The fact that they accused him of videoing them and got the police to search his phone is an unjust intrusion into his dignity and privacy.

Why wasn’t there a wheelchair space?

Rhaetian Railway also sent me internal correspondence generated by my complaint. Here’s my English translation of relevant bits.

Customer Services:
We have received the following feedback on a passenger’s journey on 25.6.2024 on train 974.
We would be grateful if you could give your point of view to clarify the situation.
The passenger also said that the interior door was too narrow to get through. Is this correct?

Engineering:
On 25th June, the train formation of 974 was as follows:
(diagram)
On that day, two inaccessible carriages were lined up for the train, and no accessible one. Accordingly, the carriages were not compliant with the Swiss Disability Discrimination Act.

Customer Services:
May I ask why there was no accessible carriage on the train, even though there was a wheelchair reservation?

Engineering:
The accessible carriage was in the workshop in Landquart at the time.

The lack of access is treated so trivially.

Landquart is 150km / 4 hours away by train. One wonders how long the accessible carriage had been out of use – and why Rhaetian Railway didn’t think to contact me and warn me.
A photograph of the Bernina Express train. Photo is overlayed with a crossed-out wheelchair symbol, the Rhaetian Railway logo and the word "Ableist".

Ableist DARVO

As my companion Mike put it,

They have no idea of equality and managing these situations. Plus they have misrepresented the entire situation (probably to suit there own views).

Rhaetian Railway staff find lying, blaming, and ridiculing the victim easier than admitting the truth about my complaint.

They have compounded the distress they caused by their ableist actions on the day by lying about, gaslighting and defaming me in their internal report.

Shame on them.

Rhaetian Railways should:

  • ensure there’s an accessible carriage on every train (lack of one should result in the whole train being cancelled)
  • warn disabled passengers of any failure in accessibility facilities in advance of their journey
  • have contingency plans in place for accessibility failure
  • treat railway-caused accessibility failure with the same seriousness and priority  as they would a significant safety incident
  • not expect disabled people to meekly accept accessibility failures
  • discipline its staff for failing to warn me when my booked assistance wasn’t available
  • discipline its staff for lying about and defaming me in their internal report
  • compensate me accordingly.

Cultural issue

Non-disabled people can book their accommodation in seconds interactively online and have a relative certainty that their booking will be honoured. Rhaetian Railways don’t afford wheelchair users the same treatment.

Their failure to do so was exacerbated by their shock at my strong objection and their lying and demeaning report,

Rhaetian Railway evidently has a significant cultural problem in its approach to disabled people.

It must address this.

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