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Inaccessibility of railway system for disabled persons highlighted in user test

Members and supporters of the Western Cape Network on Disability assist a wheelchair user to disembark Prasa’s blue train.

Members and supporters of the Western Cape Network on Disability assist a wheelchair user to disembark Prasa’s blue train.

Published May 3, 2022

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Cape Town - Western Cape Network on Disability (WCND) members gathered to commute by train to highlight just how inaccessible the service – and public transport in general – is for persons living with a disability.

On Friday, wheelchair users and visually impaired persons with guide dogs, took Prasa’s blue Electrical Multiple Unit (EMU) train from Cape Town station to Retreat and back.

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Wheelchair users were able to embark through the use of their own portable ramp, highlighting an access stumbling block.

Disembarking proved more challenging, though, and several adjustments needed to be made to the ramp.

Jeremy Opperman first took a train at the age of 11 in 1974 and has been using it as a primary mode of transport ever since.

“As a blind person, we can’t easily identify what station we’re at. Even if you have been catching a train for as long as I have, you’re going to make a mistake every now and then.”

The on-board driver-commuter communication system was welcomed and had been requested for many years, Opperman said. However, it did not help those with a physical disability. In terms of enhancing accessibility, so few changes have been made that it's negligible, Opperman said.

“The work that needs to be done is not on the trains, as much as on the platforms. There’s work needed on the existing stations and Metrorail and Prasa need to make the effort, track each station, see what needs to be done, see what can be done, budget for it, plan it and do it. But there has been no strategic approach to addressing the access issues at all.”

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WCND vice-chairperson Michelle Botha has been visually impaired since birth and was a regular train commuter.

“I stopped taking trains about five or six years ago because I started experiencing that the anxiety of actually commuting by train as a disabled person with overcrowding, lack of access, the unreliability of the train service – the anxiety of doing that – just outweighed the benefits, so I started paying a lot more to use e-hailing services.”

WCND chairperson and wheelchair user Anthony Ghillino hasn't been able to use a train for 30 years following his motor vehicle accident.

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“We can fight and advocate for employment, education – all sorts of very important things – but if you can't get there, then our hands are tied. We acknowledge that it’s not an overnight fix, just that all infrastructure improvement/upgrades need to be done on the basis of universal design.”

Prasa could not be reached for a comment before going to print.

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