Mind the gap

Riding the rails in Canada isn't what it used to be

  • Sep. 19, 2012 12:00 p.m.

AT THE Via Rail train station in Terrace

By Les Watmough

The railroads have been the thread that holds Canada together, but the industry has changed totally from when I was a boy.

Then there were steam engines, puffing the white clouds on the cold winter days. Then there were railroad workers, gandy dancers, in the stations 14 miles apart. Then there were station houses – every one with pot bellied stoves to warm up on a winter day.

In those station houses, there were a lot of things to do. You could buy train tickets to anywhere in Canada. You could ask the station master when the next train was coming, was it on time, or was it yesterday’s train. The master was there to help you in any time of distress.

There were freight trains, passenger trains, and short trains called way freights that carried mail, passengers and freight. They were the trains that brought life to all small isolated communities like Terrace. The train crews were a helpful lot, engineer, fireman, conductor and brakey (brake man), one or two. They were always on hand to give good service to any passenger.

The Canadian National Railroad (CNR), was the northern connector, serving most of northern Canada, including Terrace.

How things have changed.

CNR is now owned by someone, few people know who that is. The old steamers have gone, and the whistles with them, replaced by diesel units and electric noisemakers (not whistles).

Trains have gone from short rigs to rigs two miles long, just put in another power unit and couple up another 50 cars. The way freights are gone, trains are miles long and are long haul, with few hauls under 200 miles. Point to point, all the tonnage you can haul. Money, money, money. Crews are small, one engineer and a “conductor.” No caboose.

Stations and station houses are gone, or almost gone. Help at a station is gone, or almost gone. Passenger trains no longer have right-of-way, and two-mile long freights make passenger trains wait.

A letter from the federal overseers advises of new policy as of July 11 this year. There are few stations with platforms left. Help for passengers is not available. Help for handicapped is gone. Quote: “The agency recognized that [at] a number of Via (CNR passenger service) stations there are circumstances where the carrier may not be able to accommodate, on its own, a passenger with a wheelchair.”

Terrace is in that category.

Terrace has the George Little House as a safe refuge from the rain, but a person in a wheelchair cannot get on the train. There is no help.

“For training or detraining assistance, it is reasonable to expect that persons using the wheelchair will need to undertake this responsibility” and get someone to help get them on a train. Getting on can be done, but what about getting off in Vanderhoof?

The agency and Via letter writers have no idea that Vanderhoof, serving a town of 4,050 and outlying area of 4,000, has no station. Waiting for the train, passengers line up in the snow and the cold and dead goldenrod plants. If the train is late, like yesterday’s train, the coroner is called.

So how do passengers from Terrace, assuming they can get on the train, ever get off in Vanderhoof? The letter says to go to Prince George and find “alternate transportation” to get to the ‘Hoof.

The letter says, “at a number of Via Rail stations there are circumstances where the carrier may be unable to accommodate, on its own, a passenger using a wheelchair due to, for example the station infrastructure (none in Terrace), the height of the rail car steps, the absence of a platform (none), the limited number of trained on board and station staff…” The bracketed words are mine.

The letter refers to “lift stations” for getting a handicapped passenger on the train. For a person in Terrace, the nearest lift station is in Prince Rupert.

So if your destination is Rupert, you take “alternate transportation” to get to Prince Rupert where the lift station will get you on the train. And you wanted to enjoy the train ride to Rupert.

To go to Prince George, you will have to go to Prince Rupert, 105 miles west, before you can go to Prince George, 420 miles east. Or, take alternate transportation to get to the lift station in Prince George. And you wanted to ride the rails – sorry.

The problems are there, most of them created by the CNR. The problems could be solved.

Finally, the agency “accepted that there may be circumstances where Via Rail will ultimately be unable to accommodate a passenger with a disability who uses a wheelchair, where alternative accessible transportation is not available.”

I am not sure what that means, but I think it means don’t bring your wheelchair onto our train. That’s the attitude that needs changing. They clearly don’t like to carry passengers or to provide good service to those passengers.

Via needs to change its attitude about people with handicaps wanting to use the trains.

A simple reconstruction of the station (George Little House was never designed as a station) and the addition of a platform, or perhaps the addition of a lift station. That station would help passengers from Terrace, but still, what about passengers from Hazelton?

Les Watmough is a former director for Thornhill on the Kitimat-Stikine regional district board.

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