While the popularity of trains has undeniably increased, there are problems that remain for travelers, as public transport is still not designed to be inclusive for people with reduced mobility.
For a person with reduced mobility, every day can be a challenge, from steps to inaccessible public transports. In this regard, we had feedback from Dr. Andy Thompson, who is a retired doctor from the UK, where he also worked as a coroner.
Dr. Andy always led a very active life, until he was forced into early retirement due to a stroke that caused side effects on the right side of his body and made him dependent on an electric wheelchair. In 2020 he moved to Portugal, where he always dreamed of retiring to.
Not meeting needs
He lived in Coimbra for some time, but then moved to Leiria, where he found a good school for his stepdaughter in a neighbouring municipality. However, although he is very happy with the city itself, he says that public transport in Leiria does not meet the needs of the population, especially when it comes to people with reduced mobility.
“The local buses system doesn’t have any coordination with the next town. The municipality of Leiria has no coordination with the municipality of Pombal or Marinha Grande. As for the longer distance buses, it’s not easy, because you’ve to lift the wheelchair. First of all, the driver has to be happy that you’re going to put this heavy wheelchair in the luggage place, then he has to help. So it’s not so easy”, he told me.
Also, local trains can be really complicated. "The local ones, I haven't even tried. The reason I don't try is because I can't get any guarantee in advance that there will be someone to help me lift my wheelchair onto the train because it's a long vertical step of a metre," he said.
Dr. Andy has a converted car with a left-foot accelerator. "Most of the time we go by car when we travel long distances or even when we travel short distances", because public transport is not easy enough. However, he is a big supporter of public transport, particularly trains, in order to mitigate climate change and address the lack of population density in small areas of Portugal.
Railway plans for Portugal
Portugal recently launched a plan for 2030 on trains. The document of over 70 pages is currently under public consultation. However, there is nothing in it about passengers with reduced mobility.
“The whole purpose of my response to the rail plan is that there is nothing in that plan for people who are dependent on wheelchairs or have other mobility problems or disabilities. There is no statement of intent to improve rail experiences for disabled people”, he told The Portugal News.
In addition, timetabling is also a problem that needs to be addressed. "I am not saying they should throw away the plan, because the plan has some good things too, but it has to be improved. They talk about some good ideas, but I think it is not imaginative enough. It focuses a lot on the big prestige upgrade of the high-speed network and talks only a little bit about timetabling," he said.
"When you look at this area in Leiria, you can't be a tourist in this region if you don't have a car. I can't get to the next municipality. There's no bus from here to Pombal, there's no train and it's a 20-minute journey," he added.
In terms of suggestions, he said that "they could introduce on-platform ramps for a particular carriage on the train. The ramp could be on the platform and then when it is needed it would be there. It doesn't involve any work by the train staff, it doesn't involve any work by the station staff, it's just an extension of the platform that allows access to the carriage without any steps and that's not an expensive option."
The good news is that while local trains can get really tricky, the Alfa Pendular (long-distance train) stands out as a fantastic train for literally everyone.
"The whole booking process as well as the wheelchair lift is very easy. It's a fantastic service. I've travelled a lot in Europe and I think the Alfa Pendular is the best service of its kind I've come across for disabled people.
If you would like to express your views on the document, please feel free to participate in the public consultation until 28 February 2023 at https://pfn.gov.pt/consulta-publica-do-plano-ferroviario-nacional/