It’s everyone’s journey… except mine

Right now, the UK government is running a campaign called, ‘It’s everyone’s journey.’

The campaign’s goal is to ‘improve public transport for disabled people and deliver real change.’ The homepage of the campaign website reveals:

Disabled people travel up to a third less than non-disabled people. This has an impact on access to employment, healthcare, education and social activities. Barriers to public transport are not limited to reliability and the physical infrastructure but also include the attitudes and behaviours of staff and fellow passengers.

For years, I was in the group of disabled that travelled. Unfortunately, train operator Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR) has put paid to that.

Travelling by train is the most challenging thing I do. If I arrive at my destination without incident and feeling relieved, it has been a good journey.

In August, Govia Thameslink Railway refused to allow Chloe to travel on their services on her leash rather than in a carrier. She can’t do her job in a carrier. So, since then, I have been mostly stuck at home.

The National Rail Conditions of Travel

Train travel in the UK is subject to the National Rail Conditions of Travel. As Wikipedia explains, “very few travellers ever bother to read the document unless they find themselves in dispute with a rail company on some matter.”

Paragraph 24.3 of the conditions state:

Animals other than dogs must be conveyed in a fully enclosed basket or pet carrier designed for this purpose with dimensions not exceeding 85 x 60 x 60 cm. Baskets and pet carriers must be large enough to allow the animal to stand and lie down in comfort. Animals which are too large for a basket or pet carrier with dimensions 85 x 60 x 60 cm may not be conveyed by train.

Of the 33 or so train operating companies in the UK, roughly half allow cats on a leash while the others adhere to this rule. There is no formal exemption for assistance cats, despite their high standard of training.

“How are you disabled?”

In August, Chloe and I were travelling home when several Govia Thameslink Railway revenue protection officers boarded the train. One of them scanned my Oyster card before moving on to the passenger sitting behind me. “Show me your I.D.,” the passenger demanded. The revenue protection officer did so. “Why aren’t you doing something about that guy and his cat?”

“I will do in a minute,” said the officer, “but show me your ticket or pass.” The passenger presented his ticket. The officer then turned to me.

“You can’t travel with your cat like that,” he said.

“I have permission. I spoke to customer services four years ago, and they said it was fine. I am disabled, and she’s my assistance animal.” The passenger behind guffawed.

“How are you disabled?” asked the officer.

By this point, the other revenue protection officers had started to gather around threateningly, arms folded. “I’m uncomfortable answering that right now,” I said. “She’s not your guide dog,” laughed the passenger. The officer did nothing to rebuke him.

“Well, you need a piece of paper or something to say you have permission,” said the officer. “No, I don’t,” I said, ‘It’s a reasonable adjustment under the Equality Act. A piece of paper isn’t necessary. That’s what I was told when I called. We have been travelling this way for four years.”

The conversation went nowhere positive. The passenger continued to antagonise me deliberately. The officer did nothing to stop him until another passenger, sitting opposite Chloe and me, shook his head and said, “I have no problem with this. Mate, you’re not helping.”

At this point, another officer stepped in with his mobile phone to show a rule that said animals should be in a carrier.

Throughout the exchange, I was already having problems with my verbal language. I started to have a meltdown.

I don’t remember how things ended. I just remember the officers walking away and me leaving the train at my destination extremely upset.

According to the Research Institute for Disabled Customers, almost three in ten disabled people who experienced problems on-board trains reported aggressive or discriminatory behaviour by other passengers. The RIDC say a single aggressive incident can put disabled people off travelling by rail again for some time. The last thing I expected was for such behaviour to be permitted by a railway employee.

It ought to be straightforward

After recovering at home, I emailed Govia Thameslink Railway to complain and request a reasonable adjustment under the Equality Act 2010. I asked them to allow Chloe to travel on a leash, just as she does on Transport for London services.

It ought to be straightforward. The Office of Rail and Road (ORR) require that rail operators have accessible travel policies. For anything outside of these, the ORR expect companies to follow the Equality and Human Rights Commission Code of Practice for the Equality Act 2010. Paragraph 7.26 of this states:

Once a service provider has become aware of the requirements of a particular disabled person who uses or seeks to use its services, it might then be reasonable for the service provider to take a particular step to meet these requirements. This is especially so where a disabled person has pointed out the difficulty that they face in accessing services, or has suggested a reasonable solution to that difficulty.

Paragraph 7.35 adds:

The purpose of taking the steps is to ensure that disabled people are not placed at a substantial disadvantage compared with non-disabled people when using a service. Where there is an adjustment that the service provider could reasonably put in place and which would remove or reduce the substantial disadvantage, it is not sufficient for the service provider to take some lesser step that would not render the service in as accessible a manner.

And paragraph 7.36:

If, having considered the issue thoroughly, there are genuinely no steps that it would be reasonable for a service provider to take to make its services accessible, the service provider is unlikely to be in breach of the law if it makes no changes. Such a situation is likely to be rare.

Finally, paragraph 11.27:

Discrimination also occurs when a service provider or a person exercising a public function fails to comply with the duty to make reasonable adjustments. The duty arises where:
• a provision, criterion or practice; or
• a physical feature; or
• the lack of an auxiliary aid or service, puts disabled people at a substantial disadvantage compared with non disabled people.

The phrase ‘provision, criterion or practice’ is not defined by the Equality Act 2010 but lawyers generally accept it includes any formal or informal policies, rules, practices, arrangements, criteria, and conditions.

Also of note is Article 19 of the EU regulation No 1371/2007 on rail passengers’ rights and obligations, adopted by the UK Government in 2009. This states:

Railway undertakings and station managers shall, with the active involvement of representative organisations of disabled persons and persons with reduced mobility, establish, or shall have in place, non-discriminatory access rules for the transport of disabled persons and persons with reduced mobility.

“This may not be the response you might have hoped for”

Five days later, I receive a response. It ignores my request for a reasonable adjustment and reasserts the National Rail Conditions of Travel. The sender highlights paragraph 24.3 in bright yellow just in case I didn’t get it.

I understand you have been in touch with us about your recent journey when you travelled with your cat, Chloe. I’m sorry the journey didn’t continue as you’d hoped for and that you had a conversation with the team about how Chloe was being transported on our train. Our aim is that all of our customers have a comfortable experience when they travel with us and to help us deliver that goal, we have a series of documents, standards and various customer commitments that are detailed in different sets of guidance.

I’ve looked into this for you, and I am sorry to say but we genuinely can’t accept a cat travelling with us if it’s not transported in the way that one of those documents, the National Rail Conditions of Travel (NRCoT) sets out. I have copied the relevant sections below for your information- it’s very clear that animals other than dogs need to be carried in a suitable pet carrier regardless of their function.  

You may take up to two dogs or other small domestic animals free of charge with you unless a Train Company has set out any special conditions relating to their own train services. In such cases these conditions will be made available when buying your Ticket in advance and will be shown on the Train Company’s website. 

24.2. Animals, with the exception of blind or deaf persons’ assistance dogs, may not be taken into buffet or restaurant cars (including first class accommodation with at-seat meals service) unless specifically allowed by the Train Company that you are using. Animals are not allowed on seats in any circumstances. 

24.3. Animals other than dogs must be conveyed in a fully enclosed basket or pet carrier designed for this purpose with dimensions not exceeding 85 x 60 x 60 cm. Baskets and pet carriers must be large enough to allow the animal to stand and lie down in comfort. Animals which are too large for a basket or pet carrier with dimensions 85 x 60 x 60 cm may not be conveyed by train. 

24.4. Dogs must be kept on a lead throughout your journey, including any part of station property; other animals must not be taken out of their baskets or pet carriers. If your dog or other animal causes a nuisance or inconvenience to other passengers, you may be asked to remove it from a train or railway premises by staff.

In addition to the NRCoT, we have our own Accessible Travel Policy (ATP) which further details what those customers who need additional support can expect when they travel with us. Here is a link to the policy https://www.thameslinkrailway.com/travel-information/travel-help/assisted-travel for your further information. The ATP is an important document for us as it reinforces how we can help customers and that we will strive to make the railway accessible to all wherever possible. Again, I am sorry to say that there is nothing within this document that supersedes the NRCoT in relation to assistance animals other than dogs and how they can be carried.

I understand you were hoping to travel with us tomorrow and we would warmly welcome you and Chloe on board, but we must ask that Chloe is always carried in her pet carrier when on our trains or at our stations. If I can help with anything else do please ask and finally, please accept my apologies that the original situation was not handled as it should have been – we have flagged this internally.

Thank you for bringing this to our attention and I hope I have explained our position – although I appreciate this may not be the response you might have hoped for.

Mustering as much self-restraint as I can, I reply, restating that Chloe is an assistance animal, not a pet, and explaining that I was asking for reasonable adjustment. I also draw attention to paragraph 1.3.11 of the Office of Rail and Road’s ‘Accessible Travel Policy – Guidance for Train and Station Operators’ dated September 2020:

In agreeing an Accessible Travel Policy with an operator, ORR would expect to see evidence that the operator has broadly anticipated the requirements of disabled people and reflected these in their policies, practices and procedures in accordance with Part 3 of the Equality Act 2010. In following this guidance to produce an Accessible Travel Policy, and following that Accessible Travel Policy thereafter, we expect that an operator will be able to demonstrate compliance with its duties under the Equality Act 2010. However, the onus is on the operator to ensure that they comply with the Equality Act 2010, as failure to do so could render them liable to civil court proceedings.

If I understand this paragraph correctly, a railway operator’s accessible travel policy is not intended to represent all that the railway operator is expected to do, just what they have anticipated. And they should handle the things they haven’t anticipated according to the Equality Act 2010.

I repeat my request that Govia Thameslink Railway allow Chloe to travel on her leash.

Govia Thameslink Railway’s second formal response arrives on 15 September. I have spent almost a month at home, unable to travel on their services by this time.

“Cats are currently not officially recognised as assistance animals” and other myths an ‘accessibility lead’ should be aware of

In their reply, Govia Thameslink Railway wrote:

Thank you for your patience while I more thoroughly explored the situation you’ve raised internally, with industry colleagues and with the Rail Delivery Group, who I understand you’ve been in touch with.

When looking into your particular circumstances we’ve reviewed the legal position that currently exists for assistance animals, emotional support animals and the present guidance available and agreed with the ORR in our Accessible Travel Policy and within the National Rail Conditions of travel.

I do want to reassure you and reconfirm that we warmly welcome you and Chloe onto our trains. I also understand that there may be some transport providers who have agreed that Chloe can travel on your lap or on a leash. We have carefully considered your request and appreciate that there may be an assumption that should one train operator introduce their own arrangements that others will follow that lead. However, we can’t ignore the guidance and instructions I mentioned earlier for many reasons, and I know this will disappoint you.

Assistance animals are clearly and legally defined in this country and cats are currently not officially recognised as assistance animals. It is worth noting that even officially recognised assistance animals have to remain under a seat when they are on public transport and are fully trained to do so. It isn’t clear what assistance Chloe provides for you and she may be more readily described as an ‘emotional support animal’ but again there is currently no legal definition or description of that role that would indicate we need to change how we operate either legally or as an exception.

We dearly want you and Chloe to travel at ease on our trains, but we feel it would be impossible to allow Chloe to travel outside of the recognised guidance which provides clear expectations. Those expectations have been developed considering multiple factors including the animal’s safety, other customers, operational safety, and the customer transporting the animal. I know Chloe is hugely important to you, but we can’t change the existing rules or introduce an exception.

Your feedback has, however, been the prompt for significant discussion and we understand RDG will be reaching out to you soon. I can’t say if the existing guidance will change but I can reassure you that discussions already begun will continue and you have our commitment we will have an open mind in any industry review.

Thank you again for getting in touch and if I can help with anything else do please ask.

Govia Thameslink Railway claim that this response involved their ‘accessibility lead.’ I’m shocked.

  • Contrary to their assertion, assistance animals are not ‘clearly and legally defined’ in Great Britain. Assistance animals, like emotional support animals, are considered to be ‘auxilary aids.’
  • For the second time, Govia Thameslink Railway ignore the Equality Act 2010 and their duty to make reasonable adjustments. The only documents that matter to them are their own.

Govia Thameslink Railway roll out the common excuses

The Disability Justice Project has compiled a list of common excuses that companies trot out in response to discrimination complaints. The ‘expectations’ Govia Thameslink Railway reflect the “We are doing this for a very good reason” excuse. The project advises not to take such comments at face value.

The other common excuses Govia Thameslink Railway rely on in this response include:

  • “We are already making adjustments for other Disabled people.” (Their Accessible Travel Policy)
  • “Your choice is a bit limited, but you can still use our service.” (Their assertion that I can travel with Chloe in a carrier even though this means she can’t do her job.)

I reply, stating:

  • Chloe is an assistance animal, not an emotional support animal, and here’s why.
  • Here are the ways Chloe helps me.
  • Assistance animals are not clearly defined in law.
  • Service providers need to make reasonable adjustments.
  • None of the ‘observations’ provided are reasonable reasons to refuse a disabled person from travelling with an assistance animal.

“I would prefer to sort this situation out amicably,” I write. “However, should you fail to respond positively, I am, if necessary, prepared to take legal action against Govia Thameslink in court.”

Later, I forward them a written question (and answer) from the UK parliament website where a UK Minister of State, Baroness Williams, states:

  • The same duty to make reasonable adjustments that applies to the owner of assistance animals applies to the owner of emotional support animals.
  • Assistance dogs are not defined in the Equality Act 2010 other than in relation to taxis, and deliberately so.

Since then, Govia Thameslink Railway has sent me ‘holding’ emails stating that the process of collating feedback is taking longer than expected. In each one, they restate that I am welcome to travel with Chole in a carrier. In other words, I am welcome without my auxiliary aid.

In 2015, the Office of Rail and Road issued guidance to train operators on complaints handling procedures. Point 1.7 states:

A good complaints handling procedure should:
• resolve individual complaints promptly and fairly, taking account of the reasonable interests of the complainant, including providing compensation as appropriate; and
• lead to continuous improvement, so that in the medium term the root causes of complaints are addressed and systemic solutions are put in place.

Govia Thameslink Railway clearly hasn’t resolved my complaint promptly. They also haven’t taken into account my reasonable interests. Their responses seem more aligned to trying to dismiss a harassment claim.

For the time being, I’m still stuck at home.

References

Further reading