VIA’s disabled service goes off the rails

Northern B.C. passenger train needs to offer better services for the disabled.

VIA Rail operates its famed dome car on a run from Jasper through  Prince George and on to Prince Rupert. Tourists rave about the spectacular scenic views from its windows and capture many with their cameras to share when they return home.

Sharing someone else’s photos is as close as wheelchair-bound disabled can come to the real experience until VIA Rail honours the Supreme Court’s decision of March, 2007 in a case brought by the Council of Canadians with Disabilities in 2000.

Although the case wasn’t technically based on the Charter of Rights, Justice Rosalie Abella cast the key issue in terms of VIA’s duties to the disabled under federal law.

“Independent access to the same comfort, dignity, safety and security as those without physical limitations is a fundamental human right for people who use wheelchairs,” said Abella, writing for the court majority.

Only during peak tourist season is the railway equipped to accommodate wheelchair passengers in boarding or leaving the train and then at just three stations.

A proper mechanical lift is located in Jasper, Prince George and in Prince Rupert to safely load or unload electrical wheelchairs which average 300 pounds. At stations in between lifts are unavailable. Consequently,  wheelchair passengers are barred from getting on or getting off  at Vanderhoof, Burns Lake, Smithers, Terrace or any handy hamlet in between, particularly in winter.

Part of the problem stems from a WorkSafe rule: where no lift is available, three VIA Rail staff must be available to assist. In winter, a lone conductor serves on this VIA Rail route carrying out a multitude of duties from serving sandwiches to checking tickets. Only in emergencies is VIA Rail prepared to assist a wheelchair passenger during off-peak months.

Anyone wheelchair-bound cannot eat in the dining area or visit the dome car. Aisles of VIA Rail cars are too narrow for a standard wheelchair. And steps lead up to the dome car. “On board each train”, writes Denis Lebel, M.P. in an email from the Transport Ministry, “there is a wheelchair tie-down in place to accommodate passengers who cannot transfer to another seat.”

Lebel goes on, “With respect to meal services, in order to ensure the safety of its passengers, VIA does not transport passengers to meal service cars or take-out windows on board its trains. Instead, VIA offers at-seat meal service on the Jasper-Prince Rupert train throughout the duration of the journey, thereby ensuring that all passengers have full access to on-board food and beverages.”

These restrictions are vastly unfair to the disabled who pay full ticket price yet enjoy a fraction of the service and travel experience.

The Supreme Court decreed in 2007 that VIA Rail must make all its cars wheelchair accessible, just as passenger trains are in the United States and in Europe. Five years later the disabled are still waiting.

Lebel writes, “VIA is currently improving the overall accessibility of its services, including the reconfiguration of a number of passenger cars, accessibility improvements to stations throughout its network including improved accessible washrooms and platform access, installation of elevators and sliding doors, and the creation of parking spots for persons with disabilities.”

A 722 km. gap between lifts deters prospective passengers, rebuffs tourists, gives the finger to the Supreme Court and disregards the human rights of the disabled.

Lack of a lift in Terrace kills the city’s dream of VIA Rail bringing dozens of cruise passengers to town.

Just when more public pressure is called for, Terrace’s Measuring Up Committee has asked to be dissolved.