COVID has been restricting our travel ability for a while now. To make sure we do not forget the good old time when we could travel through much of Europe without border controls, I will share with you my experience of booking a train and train assistance for a journey from Brussels (Belgium) to Rennes (France).

In January, I discovered that NMBS (Belgian railway company) will start having direct trains from Brussels to Rennes, so I decided to book a ticket. Although I was able to find the direct train connection on the SNCF (French railway company) website, it was not available on the website of NMBS. This was problematic, given that I needed to book my wheelchair assistance with NMBS. I called customer service to ask when tickets would become available on the NMBS website. At this point, I was told that I should open the website in Google Chrome. I did that and, indeed, the direct train ticket appeared.

So with the ticket found, I then tried to book the assistance. Here, another bump in the tracks appeared. In the online form, I could not indicate that I needed a wheelchair accessible space. So I called costumer service again. After explaining the situation, they booked a ticket for me and asked me to come and pick it up at any staffed station during office hours. When I explained this would be difficult, because I work during office hours, customer service agreed to take my credit card payment over the phone and reminded me not to forget to book assistance at least 48 hours before the journey (planned for March).

Keen to get things out of the way and to avoid forgetting to book assistance, I decided to call the assistance service straight away. There, I was told that I could not book my assistance yet, because I called too early. Booking assistance could only be done two weeks before a journey. I asked why and the person at the assistance desk explained that once I booked assistance, the service would send an email to the station manager of my departing station. If the mail was sent more than two weeks in advance, there would be a high chance that my request would get lost or be forgotten. When I suggested writing down my request in a calendar, I was told that it was my responsibility to request assistance in good time, not the responsibility of the NMBS (to remember it).

So, after a morning of phone calls, I ended up with a train ticket for a wheelchair accessible space, but without assistance to get on a train.

I decided to email the NMBS Ombuds service to report my experience. A few days later, I received a reply that the service was checking the rules on assistance internally and would get back to me. Two weeks later, I received the official response that my request should NOT have been refused and that the assistance service would be asked to allow bookings for assistance more than a month in advance.  After this intervention, I was finally able to book my assistance. Still, I wonder if NMBS should not invest in an assistance system that does not depend on a station manager remembering what is in their inbox.

Funnily enough, I did not travel to Rennes in the end, because COVID closed the borders. My travels aside, this experience demonstrates that borders are not the only barrier disabled people have to cross to travel through Europe.

Speaking of transport, at ENIL, we look forward to sharing the first results of the TRIPS project with you soon.  After the kick-off meeting, we are now working with disabled people in the seven TRIPS cities to map the barriers people face in public transport. Over the next three years, we aim to co-produce accessible transport solutions in the project, as part of our work towards a more accessible and inclusive Europe.

Written by Frank Sioen, ENIL’s Policy and Advocacy Coordinator