Blind and disabled travellers are urging the Swiss Federal Railways to more quickly adapt its facilities to help them travel more painlessly on trains.
The rail company has launched a series of initiatives to adapt its facilities, and has hired more staff to aid wheelchair users, as well as those who are blind or deaf.
But disabled groups argue that, above all, the federal train company needs to more quickly implement the measures for the estimated 500,000 disabled people in Switzerland.
They have requested more brail lettering on trains and stations, warning or 'tactile' lines marking the edge of platforms, or making the platforms level with trains, and more audio announcements at the stations.
The Swiss Parliament is considering a new law that would give blind and disabled travellers the right to demand access to public transport and buildings. The parliament is scheduled to discuss the issue in September, although legislation is unlikely to be approved before 2003.
Barriers limit access
"The situation is not very good right now, but it is improving slowly. Disabled people can use public transport but only in a limited way, on the main lines," says Werner Hofstetter of the Swiss Association for disabled people and public transport.
It is extremely difficult for disabled people to travel alone outside of the larger cities. "The regional traffic is not designed very well and as soon as you get out of the main cities, there is no infrastructure in place to cope with disabled travellers," explains Hofstetter, a wheelchair user.
Often there is a gap of about 30cm between trains and platforms and the gradients of the ramps leading to the trains can be impossibly steep for manual wheelchair users.
The wheelchair users currently have to call the station at least an hour before their journey so a staff member can be assigned to help them up to the platforms and on and off the trains. This process makes travelling very frustrating, says Hofstetter, as "we can't be independent and free like everyone else."
The problem is compounded by a staff shortage. "There are still not enough railway staff in stations to help blind and disabled travellers get on and off the trains," says Fritz Pfister, who is blind and from the Swiss Association for the Blind and Partially sighted.
"We are doing as much as we can and working with disabled groups to make changes," says Jean-Phillipe Schmidt, a spokesman for the Federal Railways.
Remodelling for Expo.02
The federal railways are remodelling the stations which will serve Expo.02 - Yverdon, Murten, Neuchatel and Biel - to upgrade the facilities for disabled travellers.
It has also introduced a plan to provide "mobility staff" to accompany disabled travellers throughout their journeys, providing a "very personal service", says Hofstetter.
This is a vast improvement from previous years, when staffing levels where reduced so drastically that trains would depart with wheelchairs aboard, but leaving their owners struggling on the platform.
Financial considerations do have an impact on the pace of change, Schmidt says. "It's impossible to do everything at once - we cannot afford to do that, the cost is too great."
Hofstetter and others who represent the disabled don't find this a very convincing argument. The improvements would also benefit the elderly and mothers with children, they said - groups that represent a large segment of the population.
The absence of legislation forcing transport companies to design their facilities with disabled travellers in mind means that they have to campaign tirelessly for even minor improvements, according to representatives for the disabled.
"At the moment there is no federal law in place which gives us the legal right to demand changes to be made public facilities, so changes are very slow to come about," says Hofstetter, adding that cantonal laws also vary from one canton to the next.
By Vanessa Mock