Travelling hopefully: the problems of accessibility

When customer journeys are actual journeys it’s hard to get a joined-up solution

I love a challenge and this one seemed quite straightforward: two elderly people – my in-laws – are travelling by train this weekend to Paddington station in London. I need to get them from there to my home with a minimum of walking.

Little do I realise that planning this simple piece of travel will send me on an information hunt lasting well over an hour and requiring almost Sherlock Holmes-like detection skills.

I start with mobility assistance at Paddington. I call the accessibility helpline shown for Paddington on the National Rail website. I’m put through to Ruth, who suggests a buggy to pick them up from the train, although they’ll need to phone the booking line to arrange this “owing to data protection”.

“That’s great” I say, “now where can the buggy take them?”

“I’ll just check” says Ruth – a few seconds pass then “there’s a drop-off at the taxi rank above platform 12.”

“OK, is that a pick-up point as well?”

“I’ll just check”.

At this point it dawns on me that she is looking at the same information that I am which, as it wasn’t much help, is why I called the helpline in the first place. We draw a blank.

“I’ll try putting you through to customer relations at Paddington.”

I’m then put through to Carl at GWR. Carl is also willing to be helpful but after describing the situation we seem to be treading much the same ground as before.

“I don’t have a physical view of the station” he says. “I’ll tell you what, why don’t you phone the helpline.”

He then gives me the same National Rail helpline that I dialled to start with.


After a fruitless Google search to see if there is a way of breaking out of this loop I dial the accessibility line again.

This time Jamie at National Rail confirms that if my in-laws ask to be taken to the taxi drop-off area I can pick them up. We then conduct a joint mission to decode the information available on the website and Google satellite view and deduce that the drop-off point is signposted from the access road in Praed Street. I decide that I’m not going to get any further and thank him for his efforts.

Image (c) Google Maps

A quick check on Google StreetView suggests that the Praed Street access road might not be that accessible, but I am now in the frame of mind that this whole exercise will be an adventure or quest that I will have to get some fun out of. The prize is clearly going to be some valuable and scarce information.

But this is too high-risk. Knowing the routes around the station, I know that a wrong turning could leave my in-laws standing around while I navigate the various one-way and no-right-turn roads in the area.

I have a brainwave – call the station and ask the simple question “how do you reach the drop-off point?” I type “paddington station number” into Google and dial the 0345 number that comes up. My heart sinks somewhat to discover that it’s another Network Rail number with an options menu. I repeat the question to the helpful woman but as I suspect, she’s in a Network Rail call centre so doesn’t have the information – but she does have the actual number of Paddington Station.

I speak to someone at Paddington Station reception, who confirms that the drop-off point can be accessed from Bishop’s Bridge Road – this is at the other end of the station from Praed Street – but crucially advises me not to go into the taxi queue on the left but to go into the right-hand lane, then turn in. This is the crucial piece of information that I have been after, so I can now plan the pick-up with almost-military precision.

Problem solved for now, but why does it have to be so difficult?

Silo thinking

The various actors in this journey are all operating in silos and, to make matters worse, they are remote silos: all the people I spoke to were operating in a remote call centre providing only the same information that I had already got on Google. They were all professional, courteous and helpful but their help couldn’t reach as far as joining up the bits of my customer journey: in other words, they weren’t outcome focused, since my outcome is “get my in-laws to my house with the minimum amount of walking”. I only managed to piece together the information because I’ve had many years’ experience of picking up and dropping off at Paddington as its been through several improvements and modifications. Anyone without that level of knowledge – or access to Google Maps – would have most likely been given the wrong information.

It could have been worse

This lack of joining up and thinking end to end was highlighted in a more high-profile case at the weekend when BBC defence correspondent Frank Gardner who uses a wheelchair since being shot in 2004 was stranded on a BA flight for 100 minutes on arrival at Heathrow. It’s common practice to stow wheelchairs in the hold and clearly mark them with a label to take them to plane door on landing. Clearly this didn’t happen and according to Gardner it’s not the first time either.

Coincidentally, a couple of days earlier I had met with Samantha Berry, a passionate advocate of customer experience and accessibility for Omniserv, who provide mobility assistance at Heathrow. There will be more on that meeting in a future article, but my take-away from the Paddington experience – and the Frank Gardner incident – is that you need the following conditions in place to provide a joined-up solution:

  • An understanding of customer outcomes
  • Access to detailed local knowledge
  • The ability to act on that knowledge to deliver those outcomes.

It’s easy to state, but apparently quite hard to do.

Postscript – on the day

Here’s what actually happened…

Armed with the essential knowledge about the entrance to the drop off area, I set off in time to arrive about 3 minutes after the train was due in to the platform. Perfect timing but no sign off the in-laws. I wait 5 minutes. No in-laws. I try calling. No response. I repeat this process over the next 10-15 minutes. Eventually I notice a poster with a number to call.

I speak to a helpful person at Paddington station reception. He informs me that the mobility buggy didn’t pick up my in-laws because they weren’t there on Platform 1. Had they actually travelled on that train? Yes, because my mother-in-law had called me. I make one final attempt to locate the errant in-laws and get through to my mother-in-law who was wondering where the buggy was when the train had arrived at Platform 10. I call the reception number again with their precise whereabouts and the same helpful person jumped into a buggy and picked them up.

One small error of coordination cost me 20 minutes wait time (not a big problem) and two rather confused in-laws (slightly bigger problem). Clearly getting these elements to join up continues to be a challenge…

The return journey was all fine however: the buggy arrived at the drop-off point and off they went, happily seated on a GWR train although as there had been a number of cancellations they were in a minority. GWR’s lamentable performance however is another story.

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