Via Rail changes policy on wheelchairs, mobility aids on trains
The national rail provider fought an order to change its policy but has decided to comply
Via Rail has changed its policy on wheelchairs and other mobility aids to comply with a federal order demanding it make its trains more accessible to those who use the devices.
The national rail provider had been fighting an order from the Canadian Transportation Agency to allow more than one mobility device at a time to be tied down on its trains, and unsuccessfully took the case to court, but decided last week to alter its stance.
Previously, trains featured only one tie-down area for someone travelling in a wheelchair or mobility scooter, and other passengers using such devices were forced to dismantle the aids and store them in the luggage compartment, risking damage to the equipment.
The new policy— which is already in effect but is being reviewed by the CTA — states that trains will still feature one tie-down area but will allow two mobility devices to make use of it if the passengers have the capacity to transfer to a regular seat for the trip.
The change means two passengers travelling in wheelchairs or other mobility devices can take the same train without having to stow their devices in the baggage compartment.
The policy also features a new clause that gives a mobility aid user the right to bump another from a reserved tie-down spot based on the severity of their disability.
A Toronto couple whose complaint to the CTA prompted the policy change called Via's decision a "small victory," but noted there are details that could limit its effectiveness.
Both Marie Murphy, 54, and her husband Martin Anderson, 47, have cerebral palsy and rely on mobility scooters for their day-to-day travel.
They argued the old regulations often prevented them from travelling together, as Via allowed only one of them to use the tie-down area, forcing the other to get on their hands and knees and physically dismantle their scooter so it could be stowed away.
The mobility aids were sometimes entirely covered by suitcases by the time they reached their destination, Murphy said, adding they both saw their scooters damaged over the years.
Guidelines need to be looked at, woman argues
While Via's revisions would address their specific case, Murphy questioned whether the new policy does much to remove broader accessibility barriers.
"It allows Martin and I to travel together in the same spot," she said in an interview. "But in the bigger picture, it shows that the rail travel guidelines need to be looked at and expanded to meet capacity."
Since the tie-down area will only be used for two mobility aids if both users can transfer to a regular train seat, in a case where one can transfer and the other cannot, the one who can transfer must still store their device in the baggage area as before.
Murphy said that detail makes her feel Via is "pitting one disabled population against another," adding she believes the
company is not adhering to the spirit of the CTA order.
When she tried to book a trip to Windsor, Ont., this past week, she found the tie-down spot had already been reserved by a person who did not have the physical capacity to transfer to a regular train seat during the trip. She opted to cancel the trip rather than risk the damage that could be caused to her scooter in the baggage area.
Via says policy can apply to 2 strangers
The policy, as submitted to the CTA, also explicitly states the two-in-one use of a tie-down area is for passengers who are travelling together, but Via spokeswoman Mariam Diaby said it will be applied more broadly.
"It doesn't need to be two people who know each other," she said. "It can be two strangers."
The CTA had ordered Via either to allow for the use of two mobility aids in one tie-down area, or add an additional tie-down area to its trains.
Murphy said she hopes Via will pursue the latter option down the road to make the rail service accessible to more passengers with a physical disability, a demographic set to expand in the coming years as the population ages.