Derailed on Accessibility

By Michael Lea, Kingston Whig-Standard
Friday, November 1, 2013 7:21:23 EDT PM

Brenda Lewis is frustrated with the continued problems she has had with Via Rail, saying traveling with the railway is a nightmare thanks to their

inability to provide guaranteed assistance to the disabled.

KINGSTON – For Brenda Lewis, travelling on a Via Rail passenger train is a nightmare that just won’t end.

Lewis has cerebral palsy and uses forearm crutches to get around, so she always makes sure Via officials know she will need a bit of extra help

on her journeys.

But during the past few times she has tried to take the train, she says she has either been left to fend for herself or has been outright forgotten by

railway staff.

“This whole thing with Via Rail is a nightmare from the get-go,” she said.

The Kingston woman has a sheaf of emails and complaints she has sent to the company.

“All my horror stories,” she said.

She has received regular official apologies from the company — the latest one coming Wednesday — but all they can offer her is a $50 voucher

for some future trip that will likely see the same problems arising again, thanks to Via’s apparent inability to deal effectively with the disabled, she


“When they called yesterday, the lady was very nice about it, but they keep giving me these $50 credits. What good are they if I can’t get on the

train and go?

“I am sick of this,” said the frustrated Lewis, “It has got to end sometime, but I don’t think it ever will.”

The latest incident happened Oct. 20 when she wanted to go visit her sister in Hamilton, a trip she tries to make two or three times a year.

Since she is on crutches, she has a problem carrying the single bag she takes with her, so she always calls ahead to make sure Via is aware of

her particular need for some assistance.

The train she takes stops at Union Station in Toronto, sometimes for up to two hours before continuing west. She could get off and get on a

connecting train, but that would mean hauling her bag down the platform. If the other train is some distance away, it could be a difficult trip. So she

elects to wait on her original train.

“But that’s my prerogative. I make up my mind to do it.”

But on that particular Sunday, she learned the train she would normally take would be delayed, so she would have to use the connecting train after

all. She would only have a 15-minute window to make the connection.

“I can’t walk that fast, so I knew I wouldn’t be able to do it if I had to carry my bag.”

She would need someone to meet her with a wheelchair.

“They have these old, antiquated wheelchairs,” she said.

She told the ticket agent at the Kingston station she would need help making the trip to the second train, especially if it were some distance

away, because of her disability and the bag she was carrying.

But the agent told her they couldn’t guarantee her any help, even though her ticket stated she was disabled.

“I will admit I was getting really annoyed at this point,” she said. “Another major screw-up.”

She gave her sister a call to let her know what was going on.

“And she knows from all my past experiences what this has been like, so she got ticked off at the other end.”

Lewis considered trying to make the trip anyway, without help, but decided against it because of the extra strain it would put on her arms.

“It’s not worth wrecking my arm to be doing this, because I suffer for days on end after.”

She returned to the ticket counter to get a refund and met up with a second agent who had overheard her dilemma. The woman made several

phone calls to get Lewis the help she would need.

“She went the extra mile to try to get me help and nobody would guarantee me any help in Toronto.”

The agent, who Lewis only knew as Gladys, said she was reluctant to see her try to make the trip without any help to make the connection but

simply couldn’t offer any guaranteed help.

Lewis appreciated her attempts to help even more when she learned the agent was about to be laid off.

But she was still left with no way to get to Hamilton.

“The annoying part is I put all my ducks in a row here and now I can’t go.”

Every time she makes the trip, she follows their instructions and tells the staff she will need help, but it never seems to make any difference, she


“I do that every single time.”

She got her refund and returned home, unable to make the trip to see her sister.

It was just one more episode in a sorry string of problems with Via, she said.

She recalled her last trip on Via when she made a request beforehand for help with her bag. No problem, she was told.

But when she got to her destination, there was no sign of the promised help.

“I ended up kicking my bag down the centre of the aisle. A passenger got up and took my bag to the door.”

Outside the train car, the same staffer was standing on the platform and saw her struggling.

“Oh, you really did need help,” Lewis quoted him as saying.

The time before that, the same thing happened. She asked for help and didn’t get any. A mother who already had her hands full with a child saw

she needed help and carried her bag to the platform.

“Every time I’ve gone it’s been a nightmare. Every time.”

She recalled another trip when she actually did get some help at Union Station. A staff member had provided her with a wheelchair in which to

wait for her train, promising to come back and help her board. And then he promptly forgot her.

“I was there for a couple of hours. Nobody came near me. I ended up kicking my bag over to the ticket counter and they apologized because they

had forgotten me.”

She was even forgotten in Kingston once after she was told to sit in the VIP room before boarding.

“I waited but nobody came, so out I go again carrying my bags.”

The staffer threw up her arms and apologized for forgetting her.

“I understand that there’s cutbacks and they’re short-staffed, but it’s you and I that pay for Via Rail.”

She doesn’t fault the staff at the Kingston station.

“They’re frustrated, too.”

She noted the wheelchair lift at the station is broken and said she admired the woman who refused to get off the train earlier in the summer

because she would be unable to get her wheelchair to the platform she needed to reach.

“I admired her because she sat on the train and didn’t get off. She was a pretty smart lady.”

Lewis said taking the bus to Hamilton also requires getting to the GO bus, so it is not a viable option.

“The only thing I haven’t looked into is flying, and I am sure the cost of that would be out of our reach.”

When her husband, Vernon Dixon, is willing to make the trip with her, they can drive the whole way.

“But he doesn’t always want to go with me and I don’t always want him to go with me.”

So she is left with the prospect of again taking the train the next time she wants to visit her sister — and have the same problems happen again.

It’s something she doesn’t know how to fix.

“What am I doing wrong so I can make this better?” she asked.

She can’t understand why Via isn’t more willing to help its travellers.

“If we don’t travel, Via isn’t going to be in existence.”

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