Chris Herhalt, Record staff
Wed Aug 8 2012
Via With the Kitchener VIA station losing all of its manned staff by this October, what will passengers needing any form of assistance at the station do? Ticket agents frequently help passengers with physical disabilities board the train. Passengers will also not be able to make exchanges or claim refunds.
Peter Lee/Record staff
KITCHENER — Unstaffed Via Rail train stations may leave passengers who have mobility issues unable to board their trains, says a local advocate for people with disabilities.
Ticket agents at the Kitchener train station often control portable lifts used to help wheelchair-bound passengers board trains but Via Rail plans to lay them off by Oct. 24.
Paula Saunders of the Independent Living Centre of Waterloo Region, who uses a manual wheelchair, said several regular Via Rail passengers who have mobility issues have told her that without help from ticket agents, they may have to give up using the train.
“It’s just taking so much away from anyone that does need that assistance,” Saunders said.
Via Rail launched an e-ticket service Tuesday for passengers in the Windsor-to-Quebec City corridor, offering them “a more seamless and stress-free travel experience,” according to promotional material. Passengers will be able to print tickets off at home or have them sent to their smartphone.
As a result, ticket agents in Kitchener, Sudbury, Niagara Falls, Guelph and St. Catharines will all lose their jobs.
The decision to lay off ticket agents and an earlier decision to cut the number of train trips between Toronto and London came after the federal government announced it was clawing back $40 million in subsidies to the crown corporation over three years.
However, Via Rail officials said that replacing ticket agents with an online service was not spurred by budget cuts.
Conservative MP Gary Goodyear, who represents Cambridge-North Dumfries, said that despite government subsidies, operating decisions such as pulling ticket agents from stations are left to the company.
“The intricacies of these decisions are up to Via Rail but at the end of the day, our government is committed to safe, efficient passenger rail for Canadians and the efficient use of Canadians’ hard-earned tax dollars,” Goodyear said in an interview.
Even before layoffs at several Ontario stations were announced, Via Rail operated many smaller stations without staff.
Canadian Auto Workers Union national staff representative Bob Fitzgerald, who represents the ticket agents, says unmanned stations, especially ones in urban centres like Kitchener, may put passenger’s safety at risk.
“If those stations are unmanned and something happens on a platform, be it a rail incident or some criminal activity, there’s nobody there. You’re on your own.”
Saunders said there needs to be a worker, either on the train or at the station, to operate the lifts used by station staff to help passengers with wheelchairs board the train. “You have to provide service to everyone.”
“Discussions are being held as to how we will continue to provide assistance to our customers with special mobility needs at the planned unstaffed locations,” Via Rail spokesperson Mylène Bélanger said in an emailed statement. Our goal is to provide people with the same services (they receive today).”
Fitzgerald says the fact riders do not yet know what accommodations will be made for passengers with special needs shows “they knew what they had to do (in terms of cuts), but they had no plan.