Train travel may be clattering to a comeback, but don't look for a smooth ride if you're in a wheelchair.
Venerable VIA , which makes much of its accessibility, currently finds itself in court fending off embarrassing charges by the Council of Canadians for Disabilities (CCD). It seems the Crown corporation ignored warnings and bought a fleet of cars that it knew were not wheelchair-friendly - all to save a few bucks.
The Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA), a federal oversight body, confirmed as much when it ruled late last year that the 139 Renaissance cars purchased by VIA from France in 2000 did not meet the agency's voluntary code for car accessibility.
Among the obstacles identified by the CTA ruling were:
· doors that are too narrow for wheelchairs, plus lack of turning space to accommodate wheelchairs in the "accessible suite";
· no accessible washrooms near wheelchair tie-downs, and insufficient space near wheelchair tie-downs to permit manoeuvring;
· too narrow aisle between the two washrooms in the economy coach cars;
· no space in the economy coach cars for persons who use service animals.
The CTA has ordered VIA to remove the "undue obstacles," but the decision has not been accepted gracefully at VIA, despite the fact that it's a Crown corporation. Canada's national transportation policy makes it clear that the federal transportation network should be accessible to people with disabilities.
VIA, which has argued against the need to retrofit the cars to make them more accessible (it says the work would cost between $50 and $100 million), has already challenged, albeit unsuccessfully, the CTA's jurisdiction in the matter. Several appeals have also been filed by VIA with the Federal Court of Canada.
"It's almost an abuse of the system," says an incensed Pat Danforth, chair of the CCD's transportation committee. "Four times we've had to go to the federal courts and argue the same thing. A number of grounds (VIA has) identified (in its appeals) have been dealt with before to a large extent in other decisions the CTA has brought down."
Danforth wonders if part of VIA's strategy in this whole affair is to keep appealing the ruling until the CCD, a non-profit organization, runs out of money to pay for the cost of litigation. It's already in debt to the tune of $170,000 because of VIA's legal challenges.
David Baker, legal counsel for the organization, is baffled that VIA has managed to turn the case into a three-year process. In all previous litigation, he found that CTA matters were handled expeditiously and informally.
"I'm outraged at (former transport minister) David Collenette for allowing this to happen with taxpayers' dollars," says Baker. "He promised people with disabilities they would have trains that were accessible."
Collenette did not respond to NOW's repeated requests for an interview before he was replaced in cabinet. Instead, his office referred queries on the matter to new transport minister Tony Valeri, whose spokesperson, Christina Van Loon, offers that "certainly, access to Canada's transportation system is a very important issue. However, because the decision is being appealed before the federal court, he's really not in a position to comment at this time."
John Campion, VIA's lawyer, calls any suggestion that VIA is trying to drag out the legal proceedings both "offensive and inaccurate... a last-ditch kind of argument for an extremely weak case."
Campion contends that the "very unique purchase" (of the Renaissance cars) was necessary for the company to acquire sufficient rolling stock, boosting its fleet by one-third. "The needs of the travelling population, both as a whole and for (people with disabilities), have been met by VIA Rail like no other transportation system in the world." And he says the CTA's decision "is unhelpful to the overall needs of the system."
The Renaissance cars were developed in Europe in 1990 to offer fast overnight service between the continent and the northern regions of the United Kingdom through the channel tunnel. For a variety of reasons, the European contract for the cars was suspended in 1998 and the rail equipment, at various stages of completion, was offered for sale.
According to VIA, the cars came at a remarkably low cost and would have been unavailable at any other time. In its view, the $130 million spent on them would normally have permitted the purchase of only 39 cars, and the process would otherwise have taken four years at a cost of over $400 million.
Last October, however, Transport Canada found that the cars didn't meet Canadian safety standards, and major changes were required to correct the problems.
Campion says VIA Rail is nevertheless very proud of its acquisition and the way service is provided to those with special needs.
"I feel very strongly that VIA Rail has lived up to and surpassed its obligations to people with disabilities," he says. "In the balance between the costs incurred in the whole system for all passengers versus the cost for some passengers with special needs, we say you can't force and can't even require the government to spend that kind of money when there is no real problem."
Of course, ultimately that will be up to the courts to decide.