Using Eurail as a wheelchair user
Deciding how I was going to get around Europe was a bit of a difficult one. I knew I didn’t want to do a Contiki tour and Busabout closes in winter. There are alot of other bus companies that travel around Europe and they are extremely affordable and you can travel to another country for as little as 1 Euro. However most buses have a couple of steps. Which I would of been able to do by crawling in and out but I didn’t want to do have to do this every couple of days. Therefore I decided to get around using the trains as it seemed the most accessible option.
The train is the by far one of the most expensive options so I got a global pass which allowed me to travel for 12 days in a 2 month period. This made it a bit cheaper as you could get on any train you wanted and it would be included in your pass including the overnight and international trains. It ended up costing me $AU 1000 for the global pass and I definitely did use my full 12 days.
However there are a lot of problems with the Eurail pass. One thing is that even though you buy your pass you still have to reserve your ticket on most of the long haul trips and pay a reservation fee. You can reserve your ticket online through the website, however you have to this 5 days in advance . If you are a wheelchair user you have to first call the company and reserve a ticket and then you have to call another number to get ramp access off and on the train. If you are travelling you are probably not going to have great access to a phone so this method is a bit ridiculous. Below is a link to all of the individual railway companies in each country from which you can find their contact details http://www.eurail.com/en/europe-by-train/trains/participating-railway-companies
The easiest way I found was to go to the train station and reserve my ticket directly. This was a bit of a hassle especially if I was no where near the main station. However by booking my ticket directly I did find I was more likely to get a seat in a wheelchair accessible carriage. This was not fail safe as I did once book a ticket in Vienna with a guy who could see I was in a wheelchair and he placed me in a carriage where I had to take my chair apart and put it on the seat next to me.
If you do not have a pre paid pass you can just go onto the specific rail companied website and book a train ticket directly and most companies will have a box you can tick to say that you need a wheelchair space.
The most difficult thing is booking access onto and off the train by the way of a ramp. This had to be done 48 hours in advance. This is just ridiculous as often I didn’t know where I was going 48 hours in advance and usually the ramps were just sitting there on the platform. The other difficult thing is finding the correct people to ask about organising access. I thought that when I bought my ticket and they could see me sitting there in a wheelchair that the staff would then let the appropriate people know about ramp access….. not so. You need to either specifically ask them to organise access for you or they will direct you to someone else. The other thing is if you are getting off in another country you have to let that country know as well. It doesn’t automatically just get sent through to the station you are getting off at. Because of this very complicated process there were quite a number of times where I would get off the train and there would be no ramp waiting for me and I would have to get some nice stranger to carry me and my stuff off.
Therefore when reserving your ticket you need to make sure;
- You are in an accessible carriage
- That there is a ramp onto the train
- That there is ramp access off the train. I got into the habit of asking the ticket conductor on the train to check whether there was a ramp organised at my disembarkation. Also make sure you show up an hour before your train is due to leave.
- You show up an hour before your train departs and go to information to let them know you are there.
So is the Eurail system accessible?
Technically yes. All the infrastructure is there. Most stations have lifts to get to the platform and have ramps to get you onto the train.
HOWEVER: It’s incredibly difficult to organise access onto and off the train as;
1. Its difficult to know who to contact,
2. The whole system is not very streamlined
4. You have to organise access 48 hours in advance
5. Sometimes you do contact the correct people but they require sooo much information such as how much your chair wieghs, what luggage you are bringing on board, how much that weighs etc etc, that it can be a bit of a hassle
The most frustrating thing for me was that all the facilities are there, however it is just so dam complicated when it doesn’t need to be at all. It would be great if you could just do your reservation online, turn up at the train station and for someone to help you onto the train without any notice and then for that person to just call ahead to the train station you are getting off at. It would be so simple and make the process so much easier for all.
Some countries were definitely more difficult that others; Germany, The Netherlands and Austria like following rules so they don’t like it when you haven’t booked your access. However other countries such as Poland and the Czech Republic are a lot more accommodating and will organise access for you as long as you turn up an hour in advance.
If you were planning your holiday in advance (unlike me) then you could phone ahead to each individual train company before you left – this would probably make the whole process less stressful.
In conclusion it is probably the most accessible option out of a bunch of really bad options. The most important thing I learnt was to be patient, not get too upset and if you need to get carried off the train there are always people around willing to do so.