In the past 10 years, Japan has moved at a tremendous pace to install elevators at subway and train stations for the disabled and the elderly. Before the elevator boom, though, there were some cheaper, stop-gap solutions that were quite inventive… but also nerve-rackingly terrifying.

While these methods of getting wheelchair users up and down stairs have mostly faded into history, they do still exist at stations waiting for elevators to be built, or for when elevators are being fixed.  Hopefully you will never run into them, but just in case, here is what to expect.

Wheelchair Accessible Escalators

These escalators are unique to Japan.  They are usually operated by two staff – one stops people from getting on the escalator by roping off the top and bottom, while the other staff member uses a key to change the escalator the the wheelchair mode.

The escalator runs until it reaches a special area of the steps.  These three steps, often painted blue, are where the wheelchair user parks.  The staff will confirm the wheelchair’s brakes are on, and then push a button to start.  The ride starts a bit slow, picks up speed, then smoothly comes to a stop at the opposite end where the waiting staff will open the rope to let the rider off and reset the escalator.

Diagram of wheelchair accessible escalator from Japan

While these escalators are technically interesting, they are a bit scary to ride since the only thing blocking the wheelchair rider from falling down the stairs is a 5cm curb that comes out from the step.  It should be noted that there are 2.5 step versions – avoid these as they are not long enough to properly hold an electric wheelchair.

Wheelchair Platform Stairlifts

Wheelchair platform stairlifts are fairly common around the world.  The lift us usually folded-up at the mid-point of a flight of stairs so it can easily go up or down without making the rider needlessly wait.  A staff member will unfold the lift, including the panels to make a box for the wheelchair user to ride in.  The maximum capacity is 180kg or about 400lb.  While they may be slow, they are a safer option than the others listed here.


Caterpillar Stair Climber

While extremely rare these days, caterpillar stair climbers can still be found in small stations in the countryside, or when a train station is having its elevator repaired and needs a method to help wheelchair users get in and out of the station.

The wheelchair user gets on a dolly via extendable ramps and is then strapped down.  The dolly tilts to a roughly 45° angle so that the rider stays at a natural angle when on the steps.  The staff then wheel the dolly to the stairs and use the motorized caterpillar treads to climb up or down the stairs.

While these obviously conform to some form of safety standards, it can still be a very unsettling, if not frightening, experience.

While they get the job done, these methods will hopefully disappear as elevators become the standard everywhere.

Have you tried any of these?  Would you want to?  Let us know in the comments!


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