Deadline looms for Via to respond to order to change wheelchair policy

A Toronto couple who both use mobility scooters contend Via's current policy — that only one wheelchair or mobility scooter can be safely tied down on its trains — is discriminatory.

Toronto couple contend current one wheelchair, scooter policy on trains is discriminatory

Toronto couple Martin Anderson and Marie Murphy both use mobility scooters, and say Via's current policies discriminate against people with physical disabilities. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

A deadline is looming for Via Rail to change its policies and allow more than one person travelling in a wheelchair at a time on its trains, or prove that doing so would be far too difficult.

The Canadian Transportation Agency has ruled that the national passenger rail provider must revise an existing policy by Monday that says only one wheelchair or mobility scooter can be safely tied down on its trains, while any additional ones must be dismantled and stored in the baggage area.

A Toronto-based couple who both use mobility scooters sought the change, contending Via's existing policies risk damaging valuable equipment and discriminate against people with physical disabilities.

The Canadian Transportation Agency backed the couple in a ruling earlier this year, giving Via until May 15 to either amend the policy or make a case for why doing so would cause the company undue hardship.

Via resisting federal agency order

But Via has been resisting the federal agency's order, and tried unsuccessfully to bring the matter before an appeal court rather than going through the CTA's channels.

Neither Via Rail nor its lawyers would comment on whether or not it plans to keep fighting the order or comply with the CTA's demands.

The couple that brought the case forward said Via should be embarrassed by its resistance to increasing accessibility for disabled passengers.

Martin Anderson, 47, and Marie Murphy, 54, of Toronto said they've been raising such issues about Via for more than two decades, adding this latest chapter is particularly frustrating.

"Here we have a Crown corporation with a $600 million budget saying, 'Mr. Anderson, why don't you accommodate us, because we don't want to accommodate you,"' Anderson said in an interview.

He and Murphy, who both have cerebral palsy that greatly limits their physical mobility, said they rely on Via's services for much of their leisure travel, as trains are generally best equipped to accommodate their mobility scooters.

A deadline is looming for Via Rail to change its policies and allow more than one person travelling in a wheelchair at a time on its trains, or prove that doing so would be far too difficult. (The Canadian Press)

But trips with Via have long been fraught with complications and hassles, the couple said. Via's current policy allows for only one tie-down area per passenger train in which a wheelchair or scooter can be safely stored, according to the organization.

"Once the tie-down ... of a specific train is reserved, the tie-down or the accessible cabin can't be offered to any other passenger travelling within the same city pairs," Via said in a statement.

The rules mean that unrelated passengers booking trips may find themselves unable to safely secure their mobility aids when they travel. In Anderson and Murphy's case, the couple argues it also means they're not able to travel together on the same train.

Murphy said they tried doing so repeatedly over the years, but regularly ran into complications.

The one who did not have access to the only tie-down area had to get on their hands and knees and physically dismantle the scooter so it could be stowed away in the baggage compartment, she said, adding the mobility aids were sometimes entirely covered by suitcases by the time they reached their destination.

Both she and Anderson saw their scooters damaged because of the storage policy, she added.

'Ethically, it's just wrong'

The couple has found Via's approach increasingly problematic as they aged, she said, adding they have now opted to take separate trains to the same destination so they can both travel without risks to themselves or their equipment.

"I could not go on my hands and knees just because I don't have the ability, and Martin is having a hard time doing it now," she said. "And ethically, it's just wrong." 

Anderson and Murphy's submission to the CTA contends that Via could easily accommodate more than one tie-down area on their trains.

Via has argued it could not revise its existing policies without 'undue hardship.' (Peter McCabe/Canadian Press)

They also point to the fact that a consultant, hired by Via in June 2015, studied the possibility of storing two scooters in one tie-down area on specific models of rail car and concluded it was possible.

Via told the CTA that the results of that report were not yet complete and argued it could not revise its existing policies without "undue hardship."

Via also argued that damage to Murphy's and Anderson's scooters was not a failure of policy, which does stipulate that space in the luggage hold should be set aside for mobility aids if needed, but rather an isolated customer service failure.

The CTA rejected that argument.

"The fact that those issues have arisen on several occasions with different employees makes it impossible to accept VIA's assertion that the problems experienced by the applicants were nothing more than a customer service issue, and raises concerns regarding the adequacy of guidance and training of personnel with respect to the needs of travellers with disabilities and VIA's responsibilities and procedures in this regard," the decision reads.

Via working on its next steps

The CTA ordered 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 sought leave to appeal the decision at the Federal Court of Appeal, but their application was rejected.

Now, with the deadline looming, the company has still not indicated whether it would comply with or contest the order. Spokeswoman Mariam Diaby said only that the company was working on its next steps.