This is a recurring problem across all train operating companies, but Carillion – the company Arriva Rail North subcontracts to make such bookings – are the worst I’ve experienced. (And that’s saying something.)
Northern and Carillion
Northern Rail’s assisted travel booking and customer relations staff were all based in Leeds. When Arriva took over the franchise, they told them all to move to a Sheffield call centre, or leave. Understandably a lot left, and took their experience and expertise with them.
Arriva Rail North advertised their new assistance booking line as being open 24 hours, 363 days a year. They outsourced this function to Carillion, a rail infrastructure maintenance company. Carillion had never dealt with assistance booking before. The results were predictable.
Yesterday evening is a case in point. I wanted to book assistance for two simple journeys: Skipton to Hexham changing Carlisle, and Hexham to York changing Newcastle.
The telephone call took 1 hour 6 minutes. Even then the assistance wasn’t successfully booked.
Untrained, inexperienced staff with no backup
The reason for this is that the booking staff member had never taken a booking before. He had only worked in the organisation for two weeks. He had watched colleagues booking assistance and been given the script to use, then he had been put straight onto the assistance booking line. It seemed like he had never been trained how to take bookings, and certainly not formally trained.
I was his first ever assistance booking (God help him!) There was nobody else he could ask because he was on his own; there were no bosses or other assistance booking staff on shift. He was very nervous and made many mistakes (understandably). Talk about being thrown in at the deep end…
After the hour-plus attempting to book the assistance, he had to admit defeat, because he was unable to book the wheelchair space on Virgin Trains East Coast. He said he would get somebody else to sort the booking and email me this morning at 8am. (Unsurprisingly, I haven’t had that email.)
Northern’s Disabled People’s Protection Policy
Northern’s Disabled People’s Protection Policy (which has been approved by the Office of the Rail and Road and which Northern are thus legally obliged to comply with) says:
To book assistance please call our dedicated freephone number (also free to mobiles), 0800 138 5560. Lines are open 24 hours a day, every day that we are running.
We can book assistance for your whole rail journey, even where part of the journey is with other train operators.
That’s plainly not true, because they do not deliver on their promises.
Since Arriva took over the franchise, I’ve had the following problems.
- A weekend of all calls to the line being cut off after the recorded introduction
- Staff not being able to use Passenger Assist
- Staff not knowing how to use text relay
- Staff booking alternative taxis for inaccessible stations, from firms tens of miles away who don’t know the area
- Staff telling me to do a 100 mile round trip to get round a closed line, because the rail replacement bus they’d booked was inaccessible.
- Staff refusing to book assistance unless I had first bought a ticket, making me pay more than I would be charged if I bought the ticket on the day (rail rovers etc.)
- Staff telling me I would have to pay for the rail replacement taxi because their rail replacement bus was not wheelchair accessible
- Staff unable to find out whether scheduled services hauled by Tornado had a wheelchair space
- Staff being unable to book wheelchair spaces on connecting companies’ services
- Staff telling me I had been banned from booking assistance because I have attempted to book wheelchair spaces on Northern’s services, whereas I have never done that. The staff member had misinterpreted an instruction to flag my assistance bookings for checking by a manager due to the number of erroneous bookings I had experienced.
- Multiple other incidents.
I have brought this shabby and unacceptable treatment to the attention of senior managers in Northern a number of times, but it hasn’t improved – in fact yesterday’s abortive assistance booking demonstrates it is getting worse.
We can have no confidence that the booking has been made correctly, so we are left sweating throughout the journey – will the wheelchair space be booked by somebody else and unavailable? Will the person with ramps turn up or will we be unwillingly carried along until the terminus?
Non-disabled people can plan and book their journey in seconds or minutes, with relative confidence they can carry out their journey. Through the common contempt organisations like Northern demonstrate for services for disabled people, we are obliged to expend considerable time, energy and dogged determination to plan, book and carry out the same journey.