Improve train travel for all: bring in separate carriages for families


It was the goldfish joke that broke me. “Please do not flush nappies, sanitary towels, paper towels, gum, old phones, unpaid bills, junk mail, your ex’s sweater, hopes, dreams or goldfish down this toilet,” said the voice on the Virgin Trains public address.

I’d been on a couple of different trains with different operators that day, each for a few hours, with my six-month-old child, whose nappy I’d attempted to change in the stinky toilet, wipes clamped in my teeth, swaying to and fro, head beaded with sweat. I’d been asked to fold up her buggy earlier in the day, which I’d done with one hand, breastfed her on the floor outside a loo and tried to stop her rolling out of the train while clearing up various toys, sterilised bottles and manky fruit I’d spilled over the vestibule floor, where we were sitting. I was, shall we say, having something of a sense of humour failure.

I travel by train a lot. I don’t drive and my family is scattered around, as is the modern way. Before motherhood, the bugbear was mainly financial. It would be cheaper to fly to another European country and back again than to visit family in Scotland by rail.

But the experience of using trains alone with a baby or toddler was much harder than I expected. The rail companies do have basic provisions. Normally there are baby-changing facilities and the lifts work. Virgin do a mums-to-be pass, which offers a seat if you are 20+ weeks pregnant, though that isn’t much help in the first 20 weeks, when nausea and sickness are more common.

But the general logistics are a nightmare. Prams or pushchairs are not officially allowed on most trains unless they are folded up. If a baby or toddler is asleep, which is a fairly common occurrence at this life stage, it means waking them up, and folding up the buggy with one hand, which isn’t a walk in the park – especially when you haven’t had more than five hours sleep a night for six months. Asking a stranger if they can hold the baby while you fold up the buggy is also less than ideal. It’s a nice idea to carry a child in a sling, but it’s impractical for some children and longer journeys. It’s no wonder so many parents drive everywhere.

People always offer to help and, without them, it would be impossible. But if you’re feeling tired and fragile, be warned: travelling by train with a baby is high risk for a public blub. The stress, yes, but also the kindness of random strangers can bring on the tears. I’ll always be grateful to the woman who picked up my daughter’s book and read to her so I could gather myself for the next leg.

Parents on a Facebook group I’m a member of posted highly detailed strategic advice in the early months (dress light, cold coffee, wheelie bag). The main instruction was to buy a ticket for the baby using a Family & Friends railcard so you get more space, which is a good idea if you can afford it, but doesn’t solve the buggy problem.

But there is a simpler way: family-friendly compartments or carriages. It’s a solution implemented by many of our European neighbours. Eurostar, TGV in France, Germany’s Intercity Berlin and ICE International have family-friendly carriages and prams are specifically welcomed. Swiss and Finnish inter-city trains even have play areas in their family carriages. NSB, Norway’s rail network, puts on quite the spread, of course. There’s a separate playroom, books and films, and, crucially, you can book space for a pram. A family-friendly carriage was trialled last summer by Chiltern Railways. Other passengers said it was easier for them, too, without children running up and down the train. Working commuters would surely also prefer the peace and quiet.

Call me a whinger, but in a supposedly progressive society, rail travel for people travelling with young children shouldn’t be this stressful. Mothers may be recovering from major abdominal surgery, suffering chronic sleep-deprivation, or even mental illness (10-15% of mothers and between 4% and 10% of fathers will have postnatal depression). Loneliness is common in new parents, and with families often dispersed across the country, rail travel may be the only way to connect. And if the government wants us to drive less to cut carbon emissions, it needs to make this easier.

A major railway modernisation is currently underway. The rail minister Paul Maynard recently said he would be “putting passengers first so that they benefit from a transformational programme of upgrades as quickly as possible”. Paul, I’m not asking for a hot tub or silver service, just a small area of designated space for those with babies and small children. Is that too much to ask?

Lucy Jones is a freelance journalist and author



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