I travelled from York to Amsterdam recently by train. It’s surprisingly quick and easy, and there aren’t any silly baggage restrictions, nor did I have to get out of my wheelchair at any point. But it’s not all straightforward, so I thought I’d give some tips.
This was the non-straightfoward bit. But it’s not impossible. Don’t let it put you off.
On the Eurostar website, non-wheelchair users can book straight through from York to Amsterdam, changing at London and Brussels. Similarly on Loco2. But wheelchair users can’t book it all in one, either on the Internet or by phone. Wheelchair users have to book the three stages separately – York to London, London to Brussels and Brussels to Amsterdam.
It’s a right P. I. T. A. I think it’s discriminatory and unacceptable. Eurostar can book seats on the York to London leg, and the Brussels to Amsterdam, but not the wheelchair space. In their special assistance guide (PDF) they say this is because:
There are various differences between the booking systems used by us and other train operators, which means we’re not able to reserve dedicated wheelchair or companion fares with other train companies for you.
Yet strangely they are able to book seats and tickets for non-disabled people… Here’s what they said on the phone.
Me: OK, so to be clear: you can book non-wheelchair users direct from London to Amsterdam, but wheelchair users have to book half of it with SNCF? (the French railway provider)
Eurostar operator: Yes, because we don’t have a licence to book the onward journey to Brussels and Amsterdam. We just don’t have the licence to sell that ticket.
Me: But you can sell it for non-wheelchair users? I’ve just tried online and it was quite happy to let me book all the way through in one go from London to Amsterdam.
Eurostar operator: Yes.
The whole transcript is available here. One has to wonder just how hard they have tried to get the license and ability to sell through tickets for wheelchair users. I suspect that if they withdrew all purchases for through tickets in protest at connecting companies’ failure to let them book the wheelchair space, a solution would be found pretty damn quickly.
As it is, it’s more expensive having to book separate tickets, there’s more complication booking separate tickets and assistance by phone with each, and you run the risk of not being allowed on later connecting trains if you miss a connection due to a train being delayed.
Aside: Don’t try to book accessible hotels, accessible car hire or travel insurance for people with pre-existing conditions via the Eurostar website either. They do offer all of those, but don’t give you the option to specify access on their website, and they don’t deal with them at all by phone.
OK, so we’re reduced to buying separate tickets for all three legs.
It is relatively simple to book trains and assistance within the UK. (compared to other countries!) (famous last words!) Any train company can book any UK rail ticket and can also book assistance i.e. the wheelchair space on trains, ramps at stations etc. I look up train times on National Rail Enquiries website, which also has access details for UK stations. If you are traveling from the North East, you will end up in London Kings Cross, which is right next door to St Pancras International; otherwise you’ll have to work out how to get from your London terminus to St Pancras. The Transport for London Journeyplanner can help here; if you select “Travel options and Accessibility” you can select whether you need “step free access” etc. Plan to get to St Pancras at least an hour before your planned Eurostar departure.
You can then book the tickets with whatever website you like (don’t use TheTrainline.com, the same tickets are available everywhere else without TheTrainline.com’s £1.50 booking fee!), but you have to phone to book assistance so in my view it’s best just to make one phone call (via NGT-Relay if necessary) and kill two birds with one stone. I booked with Grand Central; their tickets and assistance line is 0344 811 0072 (UK national rate).
Try and book your tickets to “London International CIV“. This ticket covers Underground travel across London, but the main advantage is if your train is late and you miss your Eurostar train, Eurostar must put you on a later train at no extra cost, as explained by the man in Seat 61. You can book the wheelchair space, a companion space and ramps at all stations – the phone conversation may well take 20 minutes. You can arrange to pick your tickets up at the station (NB: take a careful note of the reference number to do so in case it doesn’t come through by email; also take the debit or credit card by which you paid as the machine will insist on it!) or for them to be posted to you for free.
Plan to be at your starting station at least 30 minutes before the train departs.
Check the train times on the Eurostar website. You want London to Brussels Midi / Zuid / South (they’re all the same station!)
The only wheelchair spaces are in “Standard Premier“, which is first class in all but name (it’s a dodge so that business people can travel 1st Class and claim it on expenses.) So you get the wheelchair space and one companion space in Standard Premier, at Standard class price. If you have more than one person with you, you either have to pay extra for them to travel in Standard Premier with you, or you have to travel in a different coach than them.
You can book the wheelchair space and companion seat online, but there’s little point as you still have to phone up to book ramps anyway, so you might as well do it all at once. Phone number: 03432 186 186. You can arrange for your tickets to be emailed to you, to print at home.
The high-speed train between Brussels (Midi / Zuid / South) and Amsterdam is run by “Thalys” (pronounced Tah-liss.) What I did is I looked up on the Eurostar website the train that non-disabled people would be put on, then booked the same one from Brussels to Amsterdam. You can’t book the wheelchair space online. You have to do so by phone direct to Thalys, which is an international number and incurs a €7 booking charge. (Disgraceful, in my opinion.) You do, however, get “Comfort 1” (i.e. First Class) for yourself and one companion at a very discounted rate. For any more people, you either have to pay for 1st Class or they have to travel separately to you.
Unlike in the UK, the phone line isn’t open all weekend – weekdays 8am-9pm, Saturdays 10am-6pm and not at all on Sundays. Don’t make my mistake – don’t buy a “standard” ticket on a Sunday and phone the next day to ask for it to be transferred to the wheelchair space, you’ll be met by a flat refusal. (Read the transcript of that car-crash of a telephone call here…) The telephone number from the UK is 00 31 30 23 000 23. (Ask for an English speaker – this is to Holland where nearly everybody speaks English, including the sales people.)
To cut down on the international call cost, I used VoipDiscount – this is a discount call operator which you can use in various ways, including over a standard UK landline or mobile. Sign up, add some money to your account via Paypal, register your Caller ID, then you can ring international numbers, including in the Netherlands, for “free” or for €0.01 per minute by dialing a UK geographical landline access number (0161 700 2525) then when prompted dialing the international number followed by the # key. NB: this also means you can make a text relay call; just dial the 18001 prefix, i.e. 18001 0161 700 2525 (wait for relay assistant) 00 31 30 23 000 23# (tell relay assistant to ask for an English speaker.) You will then be emailed your ticket for Thalys.
Unlike in the UK or on Eurostar, you have to phone to book assistance (ramps etc.) separately; the people who sell tickets for the wheelchair space don’t book assistance. (Crazy, if you ask me.) The assistance booking number is 00 31 30 235 78 22. So if you’re using text relay and VoipDiscount to save on costs, it’s 18001 0161 700 2525 (wait for relay assistant) 00 31 30 235 78 22# (tell relay assistant to ask for an English speaker.)
You’ll then get the tickets by email, you can print them at home.
Congratulations; in four phone calls (two international), lots of Internet surfing and plenty of time, you’ve managed to do what non-wheelchair users can do on the Eurostar website in a few minutes for free!
Don’t forget to arrange a passport, an EHIC, and travel insurance (mainly for repatriation if things go wrong.) I recommend Allclear for travel insurance for people with existing health problems. Also charge your mobile for any problems, and sign up for O2 Travel or equivalent.
- Blue Badge if you’re parking at the station.
- UK rail tickets, or the collection reference and the debit / credit card you used.
- Eurostar tickets, printed out
- Travel insurance documents.
- Bags – up to two big bags (e.g. suitcases) and one small bag – all with luggage labels with your name on
- Thalys tickets, printed out.
- Euros, and/or credit card – check out Money Saving Expert for tips.
- Phone charger suitable for the Continent – or normal one + converter
Aim to get to the train station at least 30 minutes before the train’s due. They need that time to pfaf about and be incompetent with ramps, as I always put it. (Actually, the assistance staff are usually very good – friendly, helpful and on the ball, to give them their due – at least at Leeds and York.) Pick up your tickets at a machine, if need be, then make yourself known at the info point as having booked assistance. The staff will then tell you where to go (as it were), and bring the ramp if necessary, at the starting station, any intermediary stations and at London. Depending on the train, there may or may not be a catering facility, at seat or otherwise, or a phone charger socket in the wheelchair space.
If you’ve arrived in plenty of time, St Pancras Station is a nice place to hang around; but only on the bit before you register at Eurostar. The departure lounge for Eurostar is cramped, hot, enclosed and unexciting; unlike the glorious, airy, light and beautiful rest of St Pancras Station. There’s a champagne bar on the first floor; spectacular architecture; interesting sculptures; food and drink and so on. It’s a Nice Place to Be. (tm)
About an hour before your Eurostar departure, make yourself known at the Eurostar assistance point. Follow signs to the Eurostar departures (downstairs), go past all standard booking-in places and the “business première” and the assistance meeting point is at the end. Here you’ll have to show your ticket.
You’ll then go through to Baggage, where everything you are carrying goes on a tray through the X-ray machine. (The people running this were very unpleasant and officious, but you don’t have to deal with them for long…) You yourself will be patted down and have a metal detector wand waved over you.
You then have to show your passport at UK passport control, then at French passport control, and that’s that. Surprisingly easy, a lot less difficult than Airport security (no messing about with liquids, for example) and quite quick. You are then left to wait in a special sheep pen for disabled people, in the stifling heat and with stuff all to do – bring a book!
Just before the platform is announced, assistance staff will take you up the lift onto the platform and onto the train.
Eurostar trains are being refurbished, and to be honest, they need it. The old ones (i.e. most of them) are dim and relatively cramped. The wheelchair space is in the middle – you can’t sit next to the window. But for once, you do get to sit next to your travel companion.
There’s a continental electricity socket for a phone charger. There are fold-down tables, but it’s too low – the stewards have a special higher one for wheelchair users; ask for it if they don’t offer it. There will be a free snack cold meal, and free drinks – soft drinks or wine / beer, or you can buy champagne as we did. (We were celebrating carer Mike’s graduation.) On-board staff all speak English very well and are very friendly and helpful. All announcements are in English, French and Flemish. There’s a reasonably spacious disabled toilet.
The ride is exceptionally smooth, you don’t feel like you are travelling 186mph. Soon you are through Kent and in the Channel Tunnel, with no fanfare – you’re in the tunnel 20 minutes. Before you know it, you’ll be at the first stop in Lille, then in Brussels, where staff will bring the ramp for you to alight.
Brussels station is much less picturesque than St Pancras. Much of it is underground. Ask for “Thalys” (tah-liss); in French if you can muster it, otherwise in English, and you’ll be directed to their information point, where you should say you’ve booked assistance. You’ll then be met and taken to the correct platform (still underground) for the Thalys train to Amsterdam.
NB: the “accessible” toilet on the Thalys train is anything but – use the one on Eurostar (or presumably there’s an accessible loo in Brussels station.)
The ramp onto the Thalys is also an impressive affair. The wheelchair space is next to the window and is spacious. It includes a EU socket for phone chargers. I got trapped in the vestibule by a faulty internal door! For anybody in a similar predicament, there’s a green push button in the ceiling on each side of the internal door, which most wheelchair users can’t reach, that overrides the door opening mechanism.
Soon you’re on the move again, powering through the countryside at 186mph. There’s free drinks, including wine / beer / soft drinks, served at seat; and a free “snack” meal. Which largely involved processed fish, but was OK (for me, my carer hates fish!)
And you’re there! Assistance unloads you into the stunning Amsterdam Centraal station.
NB: On your return, to find the lifts to the platform, don’t follow the signs to the platforms (which take you forwards and left) – turn immediate Right after entering the station, after registering at the info-point. (As found out by my excellent carer Mike.)
The Man in Seat 61 is the definitive go-to website for the know-how on European train travel from the UK. He includes all sorts of details and descriptions, most reassuring for first-time travellers such as I was!
My next blog will be about wheelchair accessible accommodation and transport in Amsterdam.