The reality of travelling by train with a baby

Photo by JJ Jordan

Picture the scene: You’re standing on the platform of your local train station, off to visit your parents. You’ve opted to take the train, it feels like the greener option. It is the greener option just 27% of the emissions of a car journey.[1] With you is your 8 month old baby, she’s not long started crawling so you opted to travel over nap time rather than risk her wanting to crawl up and down the train carriage. If she does wake up it’ll be easier to entertain her on the train than it would be in the car – you’ve loaded up the buggy with some favourite toys and books, as well as the usual gubbins that everyone carries round with their child, nappies, wipes and changes of clothes plus your own overnight stuff.

You’ve navigated your way through the ticket barriers – it was one of the ones where the gates wouldn’t open if there was anything in front of the QR code reader so you turned the buggy round, scanned your ticket, reversed, whipped the buggy round fast and pegged it through the gate before it had time to close. The lifts were working, hurrah. So here you are on the platform.

The train pulls in. You look at the platform, you look at the train, it’s a fair old step up. You call to a passing member of platform staff and ask where on the train there will be space for the buggy, and how you get the buggy onto the train. “The bike area is probably your best bet” they say, “and you’ll have to lift it up”. They help you find the bike storage area and give you a hand up getting the buggy on board. You have to climb on the train first, then lift up the buggy from the front while they handle the back. The scar from the C-section you had 8 months ago twinges as you take the load of baby, buggy and luggage. There’s a bit of an awkward fumble as you try to get back on the right end of the buggy in the narrow vestibule space. Before the doors close you ask the platform staff member how you might arrange to use the ramp next time. “That’s through booking Passenger Assistance” they tell you “but I’m afraid that’s only available to people with mobility issues, not buggies”.

As the doors close behind you, you look around. The bike area is full of bikes and their owners are nowhere to be seen. Right. You see through the door that the next carriage has a wheelchair space, so you wheel over there, park up the buggy, fold down one of the seats and settle in. Ten minutes later you pull in at the next stop. Someone is getting on in a wheelchair so you get up and wheel out to the vestibule area. You were, after all, in the wheelchair space – it’s theirs by right. “Where can we go?” you ask the conductor as they pass by, having set the train in motion. They inform you that you can’t stay in the vestibule area and block the exits, you’ve got to fold up the pram and go to a carriage – you should really have done that before you boarded, they add. “But she’s sleeping!” you protest. They apologise – but it’s company policy, a standard one across the industry, it’s not up to them.

Against your better judgment you acquiesce. Maybe you can lift her out of the pram without waking. You lift, and you succeed! But what about the pram? You need to take all the stuff out from underneath and over the handles, then collapse the thing, but you can’t do that and hold your child at the same time. You call the conductor back and ask this complete stranger to hold your child. It’s that or put her on the floor. As you hand her over she begins to wake. Working as quickly as you can, you take off the bags and collapse the pram. Leaving baby behind with the conductor and bags on the floor at their feet, you head into the carriage to find somewhere to put the buggy. The only option seems to be the overhead storage. You go back to check with the conductor. Nope, that really is your only option. You look up. You’re a little over the average height for a woman in the UK, at 5’5”. There is absolutely no way on earth you can reach up there, move enough bags out the way to create space for your buggy, lift it above your head and down into the rack. That would require a bit more height and a lot more upper body strength with something so bulky. There you are, standing in the carriage, buggy in hand, stuck. The conductor has followed you in with your baby, who is thoroughly awake, not particularly happy about it, and has just realised they have no idea who this person is. She begins to scream. “You and me both, kiddo”, you think.

All of this might sound like a ridiculous drama – and it is. But it’s also the reality of travelling by train in the UK, on your own with a baby. Imagine what happens when you need to change baby and use the loo yourself, but the changing table folds over the toilet seat and the narrow aisles prevent you from bringing the buggy with you to the nearest accessible toilet. Just imagine doing all of the above with a toddler in tow too.

This is a system where you can reserve a space for a bike but not a baby. It’s a system where people with wheelchairs, bikes and prams often compete for the same limited space. It’s a system where a policy has been created with no consideration to the difficulties of actually implementing it. It simply doesn’t work – and that is why we’re campaigning for it to change. Write to your MP, join the campaign team, amplify us on Twitter. Help us make our trains family-friendly.

[1] ‘How Bad Are Bananas?: The Carbon Footprint of Everything’, Mike Berners-Lee, 2020, pp114-116

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