A copy of my article published on http://candiflip.com/hub/?p=579 at the end of July.
It is easy, considering how much woe is caused by the late running, poor customer service, lack of information and condition of our trains to forget about the humble railway station. For many of us it is but a simple couple of concrete platforms with a ticket office, a sort of gateway to disappointment and trouble but to some it is in itself, its' own nightmare.
So let me make a couple of comparisons between Chatham station, a once busy hub of commuters and one of the town's two stations, the second was demolished, and Sunny Strood International as it is lovingly referred to by one announcer a functional station that acts like a junction with the Medway valley line and the gate way to Medway towns.
Chatham station is medium sized station with two platforms set below street level with the ticket office set over the platforms with two sets of foot bridges leading up to it, disabled access is via large exit gates on either platform with ramps leading up to street level. These gates are locked and you need to get the attention of platform staff to let you out or push the industrial sized door bell if on the outside. It seems inconvenient but it beats trying to drag a buggy loaded with shopping or wheelchair down stairs and there is no where to install lifts. As for platform facilities there are good sized waiting rooms, a more than adequate canopy for bad weather, an "Orange Pumpkin" catering outlet as well as a news agent in the ticket office and toilets on each platform. Having recently used these toilets I can verify that they are clean, in full working order and have plenty of facilities so you'd have to be pretty unfortunate to have to queue!
Bearing that in mind... we turn to Strood. Now as I mentioned it is a junction and imagine if you will that you have come back from Maidstone with a lot of shopping, or you're a wheel chair user and you now wish to cross to platform 1 for the connection to Gillingham, where's the lift?
That's right... just the subway is available with stairs down and up the other side. Have I missed my connection because I've had to carry a buggy laden with baby and shopping down and up? You bet! Was I vexed at having to wait twenty minutes for the next one? Yep! What if I were a wheelchair user coming in late at night? How would I get across or even out of the station? The same is true for rural stations too. I grew up in the village of Marden and if you were to get off the train at platform 2 you had to leave through a side gate (If it is even unlocked) and travel a mile up a grassy unkept footpath or... try and climb the concrete footbridge or try the larger metallic bridge (beyond the un/locked gate) that once up the first flight of stairs did lead a flat path to the church yard on the other side of the rails. Being a rural station there are no station staff to speak of so if you were on the train with a wheelchair you had to rely on a friend to meet you or the good will of other users.
Now I understand the reasons for Southeastern, much like their predecessors Connex and Network Southeast, for not installing lifts and things across the network at all the little stations. I also know that when you've got a franchise for only a small amount of time you don't necessarily want to pour money into a network and then lose the contract- you'll want to take the money and run. I'm also sure that if you were heading out to Marden or Sole street or any of the multitude of rural stations with a wheelchair you might want to call up the Network before hand and see what facilities were available and not just arrogantly just head off and hope that it'd all be alright on the night. BUT saying that, a station like Strood or even Maidstone West would be in serious need of such facilities. Strood could easily have lifts installed. Yes it would cause a lot of inconvenience to commuters for a short while but think of the benefits it would bring in the long term?
Other things that Strood is missing include decent waiting rooms. Yeah there's a roof over your head but they are open and partially glazed, daubed in graffiti and look like they are second hand from an ex Soviet state. I haven't seen any toilets to speak of, though to be honest I've not really looked, and the ticket office is tiny. Last year, due to a fault the Medway line was closed and a replacement bus service was laid on. Two carriages worth of people were crammed in the tiny ticket office in the pouring rain waiting for the bus and obstructing other patrons from getting on the platform to travel to London.
So what am I trying to say? This problem is not just a Southeastern problem but endemic across the country but it is one that needs curing. Yes you should have basic disabled access at ALL stations if not DEFINITELY on major to middle stations and junctions where changing platform is mandatory. It fails a small percentage of customers but they pay the same high fares as everyone else and deserve to be able to travel to work in the same manner as everyone else. Also some shelter and working toilet facilities would be good. Either supply us with more working and clean toilets on the train or supply us with some on the stations.