While this is a bit of a niche post, I wanted to share my eventful first experience of public transport abroad as a wheelchair user, travelling from Disneyland Paris to Paris Gare Du Nord. It was a lack of clear information online that prompted me to write this post, but one thing led to another and it turned into a bit of a story-time instead…
For any non-disabled travellers, here’s the information you may be looking for. To get from Disneyland Paris to Paris Gare Du Nord, you need to head to the Marne-la-Vallée/Chessy train station, purchase a ticket for Paris, then head to the platform and board the RER A Route (Red) train that calls at Chatelet Les Halles. From there, you can change train and travel one further stop away on the RER B Route (Blue) to Paris Gare Du Nord. You can book this journey up to 10 days in advance, or simply purchase your tickets on the day of travel. Bish bash bosh.
When you’re a wheelchair user, however, things get a tad more complex…
My best pal Izzy and I recently travelled to Disneyland Paris for a lovely few days away: my first trip abroad using my trusty power-chair, fondly known as Janice. We travelled to France via Eurostar, and our outbound journey was simple: London St Pancras to Marne-la-Vallée/Chessy, which stops directly outside the Disneyland Paris Parks. However, when booking the return journey months in advance, we were informed that the wheelchair space was already booked up on all Eurostar trains travelling directly back to London from Marne-la-Vallée/Chessy.
Heaven forbid the idea that more than two disabled people should want to travel on the same evening, right? /sarcasm
This meant that on our return, we would instead need to catch a standard RER train from Disneyland Paris to Paris Gare Du Nord, and then get the Eurostar back home to the UK from there.
It’s worth briefly mentioning here that both of our Eurostar experiences were a walk in the park, and I’d have no hesitation in recommending travelling in this way to any fellow passengers with additional requirements. But back to the story…
Now, Izzy and I are both serial planners who don’t like leaving things to chance. So, from booking our trip in January 2019 right up to before we travelled in June 2019, we were actively trying to figure out how to do this in-between train journey from Marne-la-Vallée/Chessy to Paris Gare Du Nord, our destination, and book assistance for the ramps.
Trying to be proactive, my first port of call in trying to find further information was Disney Customer Services: surely I wouldn’t be the first person to enquire about this, right? However, the response from Disney, the multi-million company who I love so dearly but who also assume all visitors are made of money, was simply to book a private taxi for the one hour and ten minute journey. All I have to say is that if any Disney visitors have enough cash left over for an hour long taxi journey after being let loose at the merchandise, they must have had had a sizeable lottery win at some point in their lives.
However, further digging online uncovered that the typical route from Disneyland to central Paris was by RER train, conveniently departing from the same station that the Eurostar operates in. My next plan of action was reaching out to rail operators, enquiring about the journey and the process of booking assistance as a power-chair user. It was from their response that I found out that trains could only be booked from only 10 days in advance of the day of travel, and sometimes not at all. Booking assistance was also apparently unnecessary, and the advice was simply to turn up on the day of travel and things would be taken care of from there. So in a nutshell, there wasn’t much we could do in advance of our trip.
Fast forward to our stay at Disneyland Paris, and we decide to have one last whack at getting organised in advance by calling into the station and speaking to a staff member during our holiday, to book our journey in advance. Again, we were advised to go away and simply return on the day of travel, and tickets and assistance would be arranged then. They also casually mentioned that when we did travel, they would need to phone ahead to our destination station to check that the lift at Gare Du Nord was actually working: y’know, no biggie or anything, what with it being our only route home… So, after our quest for pre-booking had been declared fruitless, we put it out of our minds and instead focussed on enjoying the rest of our stay.
The day of departure arrives, we enter the Marne-la-Vallée/Chessy station, book our RER train tickets at the desk (just under 8 euros each), and enquire once more about what happens next: where to go, and where we access assistance for the ramps to get my power-chair on this first train. We were vaguely pointed in the direction of the platform and informed that somebody would meet us down there, so off we went via the lift in full confidence that things would be taken care of from then on. We were even looking forward to seeing a bit more of Paris out of the window.
Now, it’s worth saying here that Izzy and I have our wits about us: we’re actually quite good at navigating the inconvenient situations my disability so often chucks us into. However, looking at the signs, we just couldn’t figure out which platform and which train would take us to Paris Gare Du Nord: the station wasn’t mentioned on any of the maps or routes on the platform. And until we were sure we were going in the right direction, we wouldn’t step foot on any train. I mean, ending up stranded in a remote French town may sound like the idyllic start of a blockbuster movie, but when you have a fluctuating illness and Janice the demonic power-chair to deal with, things simply aren’t as easy as hopping on the next train back.
Eventually, we began seeking help but could find no staff on the platform, and laughably it was a lovely station cleaner with zero English language who took it upon herself to assist, taking us to the Help Point Machine… which even after calling twice, nobody had answered. It was only then that an official-looking staff member stepped in, casually informing us that she’d been watching us wandering around for the last twenty minutes. I’m usually not one to complain, but as amusing as it must have been for them to watch two young people piled up with luggage and trying to operate a mobility aid that was on its last legs after a busy few days, getting increasingly more worried and looking around for assistance, maybe, just maybe, they could have stepped in to help a little earlier? Just a thought…
So, after explaining where we were going and our need for assistance, we’re finally accompanied by the ramps and put on the next train: thankfully, they arrived every 10 minutes or so. And it was only now, pretty much as the train was getting ready to leave, that we only by chance realised why we couldn’t find the destination we were looking for to check we were on the right train: because we’d need to change trains partway through the journey, at Chatelet Les Halles. Not once had this change been mentioned at any point beforehand, even when we were purchasing tickets and arranging assistance (or so we thought, keep on reading…) in person. No blummin’ wonder we were having difficulty working out which train to get: we were looking for one which didn’t exist. It would have been as easy to ram Janice the powerchair into the station walls looking for Platform 9 ¾.
Anyway, as the doors closed and we looked around what could only be described as a holding area, the allocated ‘disabled zone’, a seat-less corridor with nothing particularly distinguishing it from a luggage rack, we thought could finally breathe and process what we needed to do: stay on this train for the next 40 minutes until Chatelet Les Halles, change trains and travel one further stop on the RER B route to Paris Gare Du Nord, and job done. Simple, right?
Not so much. I’m sure any fellow disabled readers will have experienced the being-left-on-the-train debacle here in the UK, and it felt like a home away from home for the train doors to open at Chatelet Les Halles and the familiar flutter of panic to kick in at there being no sign of any ramps or assistance, or any way of getting off this train that was ready to depart at any moment. Fortunately, a really kind passenger had the presence of mind (that we were still a bit shell-shocked and lacking in that morning), to jump off the train and bang on the driver’s door, letting them know there was nobody to help us depart. 10 very slow-moving minutes later, after delaying the train and the rest of the passengers, help finally arrived in the form of a ramp accompanied by an extremely apologetic staff member.
So, as much as I’ve highlighted the various issues we experienced that morning, it’s important that I emphasize just how helpful and attentive everybody was from this point onwards. The staff member who assisted us off the first train couldn’t have been more apologetic, and we found out that the station we arrived at had never been informed that we were arriving and needed assistance: again, a familiar story from travelling with a disability in the UK. We can only assume that this issue stemmed from the person who sold us our train tickets that morning at Marne-la-Vallée/Chessy, the same person who also didn’t inform us that we needed to change: for some reason or another, they must have not made the call to arrange the assistance for our journey.
However, the very final leg of our commute, thanks to the kind and helpful staff we encountered, went much more smoothly: they put us on the connecting train from Chatelet Les Halles to Gare Du Nord, phoned ahead to the final station to arrange assistance, and thankfully somebody was there waiting to meet us as the door opened. As we disembarked and ended this leg of our journey home, I think it’s safe to say we were both ready for a cup of tea and an emergency chocolate biscuit.
For a non-disabled person, the journey is therefore relatively simple: board the RER A train from Marne-la-Vallée/Chessy to Chatelet Les Halles then catch the connecting RER B train to Gare Du Nord. However, I hope this post highlights just some of the additional challenges that can arise when travelling with a disability, and why the whole prospect can seem so daunting when clear information and assistance is lacking. And that’s before you take into consideration the impact the stress and additional energy expenditure it can have on symptoms of chronic illness too.
For me personally, I admit that the amount of extra exertion required in situations like these does put me off being more adventurous. I feel like accessible travel is one of the main elements of independent living I haven’t quite sussed out yet, and the thing that actively holds me back from making the most of the opportunities I have. I hope one day I’ll be more confident and efficient in situations like these, but I also hope that I won’t need to be: maybe one day the process for assistance and accessible travel improves to the point that disabled passengers can enjoy the same ease of travel as non-disabled passengers. We can but dream.
With that in mind, I’d love to hear about any of your own experiences of travelling with a disability, whether they’re good or bad. And if you’ve visited somewhere you found particularly manageable to navigate, please do let me know. Practice makes perfect, right? I’ll grab my passport…