Anyone who has travelled by train with the elderly, injured or physically challenged will applaud the news report that appeared recently in India. Foldable ramps have been introduced on certain trains in the South to enable wheelchairs to be manoeuvred into trains. Looking at the photograph of the ramp in the newspapers, it seems such a simple yet effective solution for those who require help with mobility — and I wonder why ramps are not available on every train.
We are among those travellers who go somewhere or the other by train every couple of months. For us it is the most convenient and comfortable way to go from one place to another in India, especially smaller towns that do not have airports; but there are many occasions when we have made these journeys with elderly relatives and injured relatives and we have had to get a wheelchair at the station (not always easily available) and then get the passenger onto the train from that wheelchair. It has been the stuff of nightmares — and every instance has stayed in our memory for the sheer stress of it all.
Sometimes, we have had to run from pillar to post for those wheelchairs. Some other passenger could have had need of a wheelchair and yes, smaller and less well-equipped stations could have only one wheelchair, and it may be in a faraway corner of the station ... and we do not have a lot of time before our train leaves.
A couple of times, when we didn’t succeed in getting hold of a wheelchair, we resorted to helping our parent/aunt/uncle onto a luggage trolley, on top of our luggage. As the trolley is then pushed along, we run alongside trying to keep the person and the luggage from falling off with every bump and jolt. (This is comic only in retrospect: While it is happening, there is no humour.)
Even if we are lucky and we get our hands on that wheelchair, the station may not have a ramp to take us from one platform to the other and we have to trundle across the railway tracks to get to the platform where our train is standing. On a couple of occasions, while crossing those tracks, the wheels of the wheelchair got stuck in the track or we had to haul it over gravel and stones, all the while keeping a wary look out for engines and trains approaching on those tracks. It is nerve-wracking — and then, once we reached our train, we had to figure out how to haul the passenger into the compartment — a good two-plus feet above the level of the platform.
When travelling with those who are still mobile, we have managed to push and pull and lift. We did that too with an injured relative who had a heavy knee-to-ankle plaster cast, somehow getting her into a seated position on the floor of the compartment and then rushing around and lifting her up to her feet from the inside.
The same could not be done, however, with an accident victim with a thigh-to-toe cast. He had to be taken off the wheelchair and carried into the compartment in a sheet. Luckily, he was not a heavy weight and the cloth of the sheet held ... but we did not want to think of the further injuries and pain that he would have suffered had that sheet given way while he was being carried.
A foldable ramp certainly seems the answer to many prayers and perhaps we will soon have them everywhere. It will ease our tension when we venture out — because who knows when we need that ramp for ourselves?
Cheryl Rao is a journalist based in India.