Regulator rejects Via Rail’s efforts to limit wheelchair access

Rules said all trains coast to coast must double their capacity to accommodate mobility aids

The Canadian Transportation Agency is rejecting Via Rail’s efforts to limit access on its trains for passengers using wheelchairs and other mobility aids.

The national rail provider has been actively resisting a previous Agency ruling dictating that all trains coast to coast must double their capacity to accommodate mobility aids and create two tie-down spots for the devices.

The CTA’s ruling came about as the result of a complaint from a Toronto married couple, both of whom have cerebral palsy and use motorized scooters. They contend that Via’s long-standing approach prevents them from travelling together.

Via Rail had tried to push back against the CTA ruling, saying it only planned to create two tie-down spots on one of three classes of train travelling on one specific route.

In a decision dated Nov. 1, the CTA rejected Via’s approach and ordered the company to either add tiedowns for all trains across the country or present clear arguments as to why doing so would create undue hardship.

Via Rail says it is “analyzing” the CTA’s latest decision and “cannot comment further at this time.”

Martin Anderson and Marie Murphy, the Toronto couple at the heart of the complaint, said they feel validated by the CTA’s pushback.

Despite the agency’s fairly clearcut ruling, however, they fear more fighting lies ahead.

“We remain cautiously optimistic, but with each victory we feel we have, Via tends to drag it out again,” Murphy said in a telephone interview. “It feels like we have the weight of the CTA behind us and that they are now finally being called to be accountable. I hope they won’t be able to wiggle themselves out of this one.”

The couple’s long-standing battle with Via appeared to be at an end in February when the CTA first ruled on the formal complaint they filed protesting the company’s approach to wheelchair accessibility.

Murphy and Anderson decried Via Rail’s policy dictating that trains only required one tie-down area for someone travelling in a wheelchair or mobility scooter. Other passengers using such devices were forced to dismantle the aids and store them in the luggage compartment, risking damage to the expensive equipment.

Anderson and Murphy argued that the policy was discriminatory towards people with disabilities, while Via said any difficulties the couple encountered were the result of individual customer service failings rather than flawed policy.

The CTA sided with the couple in February, ordering Via to either provide two tie-down areas per train or allow two mobility aids to make use of the same tie-down by May 15. Alternatively, Via could offer evidence that it could not comply without undue hardship.

Via opted to change its policy, saying it would make it possible for two mobility aids to use the existing tie-down area on specific trains as long as the users had the capacity to transfer to a regular seat for the trip.

On June 23, the CTA sent Via a letter seeking “confirmation” of several points, including the fact that the new accessibility rules would be applied on every Via train across the country.

Via Rail’s July 12 response, filed after a deadline set by the CTA, made it clear that it planned only to apply the rules on one of three train types travelling within the Quebec-Windsor corridor.

The rail provider argued that Murphy and Anderson only travelled on that specific route and contended establishing more than one tie-down on the other two train types was either in the works or not feasible.

The CTA’s latest ruling rejected that approach.

“This … is inconsistent with the Agency’s order,” the CTA wrote. “While VIA refers to a ‘series of issues that make the application of this policy elsewhere not possible,’ it did not explain what those issues are, nor make a clear claim of undue hardship. Given the above, the Agency finds that the revised policy does not comply with the order.”

The decision also took Via to task for failing to thoroughly research ways in which additional mobility aids could be safely secured on board its trains, saying it “notes with concern how little work appears to have been done since 2015 on the question of scooter storage.” The CTA gave Via until Nov. 16 to “confirm that no consultations were conducted” on the issue.

Murphy and Anderson said full compliance cannot come too soon, saying train travel is still very challenging.

When the couple tried to book two tie-down spots for an upcoming trip to Windsor, Ont., they found their first four time options were not available because one of the spots had already been reserved.

Anderson said their situation proves that there’s a demand for broader accessibility for all Canadians.

“The tie-down spots were used,” he said. “That shows the need for more spots now.”

The CTA has ordered Via to either allow for two wheelchair tiedowns on all trains across the entire network or submit a claim of undue hardship “supported by clear and detailed evidence” by Jan. 3.

Michelle McQuigge, The Canadian Press

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