Railways and Disability Rights
The European Union’s legislation on passenger rights that became effective in December 2009 sets out minimum quality standards that have to be guaranteed to rail passengers. Inter alia, it lays down the right to transport for passengers with reduced mobility and is a major step in ensuring that these passengers can travel in a way that is comparable to other citizens. Railway companies have been mandated to provide them assistance on board as well as during boarding and disembarking from a train, free of charge. The stated objective of this legislation is to safeguard users’ rights for passengers and to improve the quality and effectiveness of rail passenger services in order to help increase the share of rail transport in relation to other modes of transport.
In some European countries, there are commercial agreements between the station manager and the railway undertaking to help passengers in boarding and alighting from trains. In several others, information about the meeting place and the type of disability is sent by email, and the station staff then waits for the passenger at the agreed location. In Sweden, the ministry of transport has decided that such assistance should be provided by a neutral body accessible to all operators. The company contracted for this work takes charge of bringing the customer to the platform and the train, and thereafter the train operator’s staff helps the passenger to board the train. In Italy, passengers with reduced mobility can notify their need for assistance to the dedicated service centres set up by the infrastructure manager; specialised ground staff, dedicated to supporting persons with reduced mobility then help those who have asked for assistance to board or alight from trains. In Slovenia, special lifts have been purchased to enable wheelchair users to board trains at major stations. And, in the Netherlands, all the trains managed by Arriva — the largest private operator in the country — have a sliding step that enables disabled persons to get on and off trains without assistance.
In India, the government enacted the People with Disabilities, Equal Opportunities and Protection of Rights Act in 1995 that provides for equal opportunities and facilities for the physically challenged. Subsequently, comprehensive instructions were issued by Indian Railways in 2007 for setting up various facilities at stations and in the trains for the disabled.
Replying to a question in the Lok Sabha in 2010, the minister of railways had stated that specially designed Second class Luggage-cum-Guard coaches, known as SLRD, had been declared as unreserved coaches, fully earmarked for physically handicapped persons in all mail/express trains (except fully reserved trains). She had further elaborated that about 680 pairs of mail/express trains except special type trains (Rajdhani, Shatabdi, Jan Shatabdi, AC Special and Duronto) had been provided with one SLRD coach, and that all Garib Rath trains had been provided with coach having accommodation for physically handicapped persons.
Unfortunately, even today, the assistance provided to a wheelchair-bound passenger is only minimal. The problems encountered by persons with restricted mobility while travelling by train are many and call for urgent remedial measures. The coaches for the disabled are reported to be two feet high and over one foot away from the platform without a ramp. The coaches are also generally unreserved and a disabled person would rarely prefer travelling unreserved as it may compromise with his safety and convenience.
Inter-platform transfer continues to be a major irritant. In the words of an aggrieved passenger, “the basic issue of inter-platform transfer seems to have been entirely ignored. I have always been taken as a luggage over the railway tracks by a coolie, putting me as a passenger at a higher risk of accidents than anybody else”. Another passenger laments that at a station in Delhi there was no arrangement for any wheelchair and he had to be transported on a luggage cart across the tracks through a dimly lighted area that was risky and dangerous.
It is to be regretted that the booklet “Trains at a Glance” containing the timetable and other information for rail travelers makes only a passing mention of the assistance available to passengers with reduced mobility. It merely states that 150 ‘A’ class stations have been identified for providing booths for making assistance available to the physically challenged. Had the Indian Railways cared enough, it should have given the names of all the stations where such facilities have been provided, with detailed information about the availability of ramps, accessible toilets, services at stations, and the meeting points where the disabled passenger can meet the station staff before joining the train. This would have been extremely helpful not only to the domestic but also to the foreign travelers who visit India to experience the romance of rail journeys.
It is not that Indian Railways are unmindful of the requirements of travelers with special needs, but what is lacking is the proper implementation, supervision and monitoring of the facilities that have been provided so far, and a well-formulated plan for upgrading these to international standards. One fails to see the seriousness of railways’ intent in reaching out to the disabled, and assuring them that they are no less privileged than its other customers. As things stand today, the procedures for getting wheelchairs at the stations have not been streamlined, there is absence of trained staff to escort disabled passengers to the train, and the ramps over which wheelchairs can be moved from the platform to the coach have not been made available. Concessions in train fares are not sufficient to incentivise the disabled to travel by train. They must also be made to feel that they are not being discriminated against.
Perhaps there is a strong case for bringing out a separate Railway Disabled Passenger Rights Act so that access to special facilities at railway stations and trains can be demanded by passengers as a matter of right, enforceable by law, and with penalties on the transporter in the event these are not made available. To begin with, the Act may cover only the major railway stations, and later be extended to other stations in a planned, phased and time-bound manner.
The author is a former MD of Railway Finance Corporation.