Who to ask about travel with special needs?

  Wheelchair space on Eurostar train to Lille, Paris or Brussels

A wheelchair space on a Eurostar.  An accessible toilet is right next door.  There are similar wheelchair spaces on Thalys trains from Brussels to Amsterdam & Cologne, and on TGVs from Lille to destinations all over France, and from Paris to Switzerland & Milan.

In this section I'll summarise facilities for people with special needs on routes from the UK to major European destinations.  It's not an aspect I'm properly qualified to research myself, so if you can help with advice from personal experience, please get in touch.  To make travel enquiries or arrange travel assistance at stations:

Travellers with disabilities on Eurostar to Paris, Lille, Brussels, Amsterdam...

It's no problem to travel by Eurostar from London to Paris, Lille, Brussels, Rotterdam or Amsterdam, even if you're confined to a wheelchair or have other special needs.  Each Eurostar train has a wheelchair space in several 1st class cars, adjacent to a wheelchair-accessible toilet with push-button access.  There are special fares for people travelling in wheelchairs and one travelling companion, giving 1st class travel at discounted 2nd class fares.  You can book wheelchair travel online at www.eurostar.com, just click 'Wheelchair' under the passenger box on the journey planner on their home page.  If you tell Eurostar in advance, either when booking your tickets with an agency like Rail Europe or Deutsche Bahn's English-speaking telesales line, or by calling Eurostar direct on 03432 186 186 or emailing them via www.eurostar.com after buying tickets online, Eurostar can provide assistance to passengers with special needs (whether this involves a wheelchair or not) at your departure and arrival stations, and on board the train.  For more information, see www.eurostar.com/uk-en/travel-info/travel-planning/accessibility.

Accessible taxis & buses in Paris...

If you need to change trains & stations in Paris, there's a pre-bookable wheelchair-accessible taxi service run by G7 Taxis, www.g7.fr.  To book, call +33 1 41 27 66 99 (English speaking line) or +33 1 47 39 00 91, making sure you ask for a wheelchair accessible taxi.  There's a €5 booking fee, and bookings can be made from 7 days until 1 hour before you need the taxi.  Gare du Nord to Gare d'Austerlitz for example costs €13-€19 per taxi.  Feedback from users of this service would be very welcome!  Tip:  Sometimes they decline to pick up at stations.  If so, for pickup at the Gate du Nord suggest 'Boulevard de Denain' instead, this is the road immediately leading off in front of you when you leave the Gare du Nord's main exit.  You might want to call when you know you have arrived.

There are also wheelchair-accessible buses.  Bus 91 is wheelchair-accessible & links Gare du Nord, Gare de l'Est, Gare de Lyon & Gare Montparnasse. See www.ratp.fr.

Travel with disabilities beyond Lille, Paris or Brussels...

Once on the Continent, most modern daytime trains have accommodation for passengers travelling in wheelchairs.  Assistance at stations can be arranged through booking agencies such as Rail Europe or Deutsche Bahn's English-speaking telesales line.  Here is a quick summary:

...to France:

Take Eurostar from London to Lille and make a simple same-station connection with a high-speed TGV to destinations all over France, including Nice, Marseille, Cannes, Bordeaux, Strasbourg, Toulouse, Avignon, Nantes, Nîmes & Montpellier.  At Lille, there are both lifts & escalators to all four platforms.  All TGV trains have wheelchair spaces and wheelchair-friendly toilets.  For train times, see the London to France page.  For travel information for passengers with disabilities on French Railways, see en.oui.sncf.

...to Belgium & the Netherlands:

Take Eurostar to Brussels, and make a simple same-station change onto a high-speed Thalys train to Rotterdam, The Hague or Amsterdam Centraal.  There are lifts to/from all platforms in Brussels.  Thalys trains have wheelchair spaces and wheelchair-friendly toilets.  For train times and how to buy tickets, see the London to the Netherlands page.  You could also consider travelling by ferry, see www.stenaline.co.uk (Harwich-Hoek van Holland), www.dfds.co.uk (Newcastle-IJmuiden near Amsterdam).

...to Switzerland:

Take Eurostar to Paris Gare du Nord, where there is level access off the platforms straight onto the concourse and the street.  You will need to arrange transport from Paris Nord to Paris Gare de Lyon, for example using the wheelchair-accessible taxi.  All the TGV-Lyria high-speed trains from Paris Gare de Lyon to Lausanne, Geneva, Bern, Basel & Zurich have wheelchair places and wheelchair-accessible toilets.  Update:  Several days a week, there's now a London to Geneva service with one easy same-station change in Lille between Eurostar and a Lille-Geneva TGV-Lyria, see details here.  For train times and how to buy tickets for all options, see the London to Switzerland page.

...to Italy:

Take Eurostar to Paris Gare du Nord.  You will need to arrange transport across Paris to the Gare de Lyon, for example using the wheelchair-accessible taxi.  Then take a daytime TGV train from Paris to Turin & Milan as these have wheelchair places and wheelchair-accessible toilets, for details see the Italy page.  Alternatively, TGV-Lyria trains between Paris and Switzerland have wheelchair spaces and toilets, spend the night in Geneva, Lausanne, Basel or Zurich then take a EuroCity train to Milan for onward connections to Rome, Florence, Venice or Naples.  For details of this scenic option via Switzerland, click here.  These EuroCity trains have wheelchair spaces an accessible toilets.  Once in Italy, most fast trains including Frecciarossa, Frecciargento & Frecciabianca services between major Italian cities have wheelchair spaces and wheelchair-accessible toilets.  For train times and how to buy tickets, see the London to Italy page.  You can arrange assistance at stations and assistance on and off trains (and, I believe,  get wheelchair spaces reserved on trains in Italy) at www.rfi.it/rfi-en/For-persons-with-disability/Services-assistance-in-stations.

...to Spain:

Take Eurostar to Paris Gare du Nord.  You will need to arrange transport across Paris to the Gare de Lyon, for example using the wheelchair-accessible taxi.  Then take a Paris-Barcelona TGV as shown on the London to Spain page.  These have wheelchair spaces and accessible toilets.  You'll then also find these facilities on the onward Spanish AVE trains from Barcelona to Madrid, Malaga, Seville, Cordoba, Alicante, Valencia and most other Spanish destinations.  However, there are no wheelchair facilities on the French overnight trains between Paris and Perpignan, Latour de Carol or the Spanish border mentioned on that page.  There are direct ferries from the UK to Spain, with disabled/wheelchair facilities.  See www.brittany-ferries.co.uk (Plymouth-Santander, Portsmouth-Santander & Portsmouth-Bilbao). 

...to Germany & Austria:

Take Eurostar to Brussels or Paris.  In Brussels it's a simple same-station change with lifts to/from all platforms.  In Paris, it's a 10-15 minute walk or wheelchair push from the Gare du Nord where Eurostar arrives to the Gare de l'Est where the trains to Germany depart.  From Brussels, there are Thalys high-speed trains to Cologne all with wheelchair spaces and wheelchair-friendly toilets.  From Cologne, there are wheelchair spaces and wheelchair-friendly toilets on almost all the InterCity (IC) and InterCityExpress (ICE) trains to destinations all over Germany.  Boarding assistance can be provided at most major Germany stations.  From Paris Gare de l'Est there are direct TGV or ICE trains to Stuttgart, Munich, Frankfurt all with wheelchair spaces and wheelchair-accessible toilets.  Onwards trains from Munich to Innsbruck, Salzburg & Vienna have wheelchair spaces, too.  For train times, fares & how to buy tickets, see the London to Germany page.  There is a handicap brochure with more information on the Germany Railways website, www.bahn.de.

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Traveller's reports:  With a wheelchair from London to Croatia!

Traveller Andrew Farrow went from London to Croatia by train in a wheelchair:  I’m a permanent wheelchair user, with a 'normal' manual wheelchair.  I need a ramp to get on to a train.  I can, with assistance, transfer to a normal seat and my wheelchair can be folded away - people with bigger or electric wheelchairs might have a different experience. Because of the hassle of sorting out ramps and assistance, I’d allow a minimum of at least 30 minutes to change trains at any station, preferably a lot longer. And despite the European Community supposedly being a place of common rules and regulations, this does not seem to apply to rail travel in a wheelchair, where each country has its own approach. Each country has different rules about companions or carers and a different mechanism for dealing with wheelchairs.  From my  experience so far, you need to be willing to be lifted in and out of trains, to accept not always being able to get to a toilet, to have to transfer from your chair and to have a lot of patience.  That said, because of my wheelchair we met far more people and had far more wonderful encounters with strangers than we would have done otherwise.  Everywhere people were enormously friendly and helpful: partly as a result of my London–Split trip, I’ve decided I will now travel in Europe only by train.

I booked my Eurostar ticket online, a very easy process. The Paris–Split travel was all arranged by Deutsch Bahn. However, Deutsch Bahn could only arrange assistance in Germany, not Croatia.

1. London - Paris:  Eurostar is wonderful for wheelchair users. There are only two wheelchair spaces in the entire train, so it’s worth booking early if you have to catch a specific train. Assistance does not need to be booked in advance, you don’t need to turn up especially early and you can check in at the normal check in desks. A (very grand) ramp is provided in both London and Paris (Gare du Nord).

2. Paris - Munich:  Following your advice, we caught the overnight train from Paris Gare de l’Est [sadly discontinued from December 2014], leaving at 20:05, arriving Munich 07:10. This was a fantastic journey: we had an entire compartment to ourselves, although others could access the toilet! Instead of a four person couchette, our compartment was a two person couchette with a lot of extra room for wheeling about. Similarly, the toilet was enormous, with huge amounts of room. With this level of luxury, I doubt whether they can accommodate more than one wheelchair user, so book early. You need to get to Gare de L’Est at least half an hour before the train leaves and go to the Special Assistance office to find a staff member who will then find a ramp for you. We had to wait in Munich for a little while for a ramp to be found.

3. Munich – Zagreb:  Deutsch Bahn wouldn’t allow us to catch the suggested 08:27 from Munich to Zagreb as they said that there wouldn’t be enough time to make the change from one train to another (That actually turned out quite well, because when we arrived in Munich, we discovered it was Oktoberfest, so had time to walk down to the venue and experience literally tens of thousands of Germans in lederhosen celebrating and sampling enormous quantities of beer). Instead, they booked us on to the direct train to Zagreb leaving Munich at 12:27 and arriving Zagreb at 20:53, no changes necessary. Getting on the train in Munich was fine. However, this journey would not be possible for someone who cannot transfer from their wheelchair: I had to transfer from my chair to a seat at the end of the compartment as the corridor was too narrow to wheel down. There is no separate wheelchair space, and my chair had to be folded up. Given this experience, I doubt whether the toilet was accessible (I didn’t check). It was a comfortable train though, and the conductor very helpfully brought food and beer to our seats.

I was unsure what would happen when we got to Zagreb or Split. Whilst I had found contact details for Croatian Railways and did have an email conversation discussing what train times and carriages I was in (“We need these details so we could be able to organized your transportation”), I didn’t actually have confirmation that assistance or ramps would be available. In Zagreb, a ramp was eventually found and we descended. It’s an accessible station with no steps.  We stayed the night in the Esplanade Hotel, about five minutes walk from the station and a glorious Art Deco hotel with very reasonable prices. It used to be the preferred venue for travellers stopping off en route on the old Orient Express leg from Istanbul to Zagreb apparently. This allowed us a morning to explore Zagreb, where there’s an original carriage from the Orient Express that’s been turned into a bar.

4. Zagreb – Split:  We left Zagreb at 14:04, arriving Split at 20:37. We arrived at Zagreb station 45 minutes before the train was due to leave and after a lot of confusion and discussion at the information desk, got taken to a side office and eventually a ramp was arranged. Again, I had to transfer from my wheelchair. Again, I doubt whether there were accessible toilets on board. At Split, no ramp but lots of strong helpful men to get me down. An accessible station, no steps.

Traveller Jill Lindenbauer travelled from London to Valencia by train with her young son who uses a wheelchair.  She reports:  "I feel so lucky to have Ebbsfleet International on my doorstep, and the staff which assisted William and I certainly made us feel like VIPs.  It was no trouble boarding the train and as William's carer we were privileged to sit in 1st class as this is where the wheelchair seating is situated, even though we only paid 2nd class fares.  Immediately we were asked if we wanted a drink, and a meal was provided, which I wasn't expecting. It certainly got the holiday off to a good start, and whilst travelling I received a call from the English-speaking G7 Taxi service in France to say that our wheelchair-accessible taxi would be waiting when we arrived in Gare Du Nord.  This is a quick and easy service to use and I booked our taxi in advance from the comfort of my own living-room.

When William and I reached Gare Du Nord that sunny evening there was the same buzz of activity as the ramp was prepared for the wheelchair, and a porter took my bags. I soon spotted my name on a white piece of card, but I'm guessing the taxi driver spotted my son and I as we made our way along the platform. The taxi driver took my bag and led the way to his vehicle outside. He swiftly organised the ramp and pushed William in his chair inside, where he secured William's wheelchair to the car floor with belts. The politeness and assistance of the taxi driver made our short trip effortless and at Gare D'Austerlitz he escorted us to the Information Office.  The taxi cost 40-50 euros, but the meter was probably running as we are leaving the train and as we are about the last to leave as we wait for special assistance this is a small price to pay.

At Gare d'Austerlitz the woman in the information desk shook her head as she saw my little boy's heavy manual wheelchair surrounded by luggage, and made hand signals to indicate how small the trenhotel to Barcelona was.  Around 8pm it arrived. The guard checked my ticket, which clearly stated "disabled passenger," and showed me our Gran Clase 2-berth sleeper, which was the first one adjacent to the dining-car. Unfortunately I could see that there was no way I was going to be able to board the train or enter our cabin with the wheelchair, which was just a few centimetres too wide. So I unbelted William and sat him in the cabin propped up with some luggage and quickly dismantled the wheelchair which divides into three pieces, the main chair does not and this I placed on the second seat, the wheels disappeared into the shower area, and we soon had the cabin looking homely, as I sat William on my lap.

Dinner arrived as it was evident that we wouldn't be very popular blocking the dining-car. I was quite content eating and watching the scenery, but like most children my son was not happy with his dinner, even though there was a children's menu, so one of our rucksacks carried extra food supplies just in case! Our bed was made and sleep was welcome. All our luggage was on the top berth and made the cabin nice and spacious. The rolling and rattling of the carriages made me feel like I was being rocked in a cradle. Morning arrived, breakfast was served and Barcelona appeared. William and I were sitting in Parc De La Ciutadella in Barcelona at 9am, waiting for our final connection to Valencia.  At 10am we went to the Information Desk at the station, where they were expecting us. Unfortunately there was no ramp to be seen, and so I carried William on board whilst the female assistant asked a member of the public to help her place the wheelchair on the train. There was a  special area for this, which is called the "H" Seat. In comparison to the Trenhotel this train looked newer and wider.  The scenery along the coast was breathtaking, making us feel like peeping toms, as we would spurt through a dark tunnel to be met by bright sunlight and naked bodies on golden beaches. The journey passed quickly as the train filled and emptied at seaside stations. At one time the wheelchair was covered by a sea of other people's suitcases, which was a good thing William sat with me for most of the time. As the train pulled into Valencia I was geared up to take William off myself, but the three young men in uniforms bearing the wheelchair logo were already in the process of operating the ramp, and we became a fascinating spectacle for the Spanish public.

My tearful sister was there to greet us, waiting to hear of our travels, which I found to be fun and hassle free. Unlike the madness of airports and wondering if you are going to see your bags again I found the whole experience graceful and dignified. William and I and the faithful wheelchair by our side feel like we actually travelled and saw life, rather than being catapulted into the air, looking at the sky for a couple of hours, and then being trundled onto a bus to go and search for our luggage.  When we returned we knew the process so it was even easier and the same taxi driver asked how we got on.  The only problem was both lifts at Gare Du Nord were out of action until 10th August, but I carried William up the escalator and my assistant at the station took the wheelchair.

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