In a Wheelchair, the REM is an Obstacle Ride

The light rail network’s accessibility issues leave riders with mobility issues “disappointed and bitter.” Author of the article:Jason Magder
Montreal Gazette
Published Apr 06, 2024

Only two minutes into their first trip on the Reseau express metropolitain and it’s not going well for Marie Turcotte and Francois Bourbonniere – and they haven’t even gotten on the train.

That’s because they use wheelchairs.

Despite repeated assurances by CDPQ Infra, the agency that owns and operates the REM, that Quebec’s new automated light rail network for the Montreal region would be built to be a model of accessibility, the pair are having a hard time just trying to pay for their fares at the ticket dispenser.

Turcotte is director general of Ex aequo, a lobby group for people with disabilities, and Bourbonniere is its treasurer. They agreed to meet a reporter recently at Central Station, the current terminus of the REM for trains heading onto the island from the South Shore, to show them the challenges faced by passengers with mobility issues.

“The machine is too high for me,” Turcotte said. “It’s also too high for Francois, because he can’t reach the slot to enter his credit card.”

The two roll their wheelchairs over to a customer service counter located on the same floor as the ticket dispenser but staff turn them away, saying they are not permitted to purchase tickets there. They are told they must go back up the elevator to the general concourse area, known as the Salle des pas perdus, to ask ticket agents at the Billetterie metropolitaine for help.

However, when they arrive at the Billetterie metropolitaine, the counter is too high for both of them. Employees have to leave their posts from behind the glass partition to interact with them.

Finally, after about 15 minutes, they are handed their tickets.

On this day, Turcotte and Bourbonniere booked a ride on an adapted transit vehicle to get to Central Station. If instead they had attempted to take the metro to get there, they would have faced even more challenges to access the REM.

Last August, shortly after the REM began service, the Montreal Gazette highlighted the problems that mobility-reduced passengers have accessing the Central Station terminus downtown. One of the key problems is that the station has an underground connection to nearby Bonaventure metro station but that tunnel is not accessible to those with mobility issues.

Rotating doors at the Bonaventure metro station’s passage to Central Station are impenetrable for the mobility-challenged. The doors are so narrow that most parents pushing strollers must take their child out of the stroller, fold it up and then enter or exit the station. Wheelchairs cannot fit through those doors.

One set of escalators connecting Bonaventure metro and Central Station is also too narrow for many strollers to fit.

Serge Poulin, director general of Regroupement des usagers du transport adapte et accessible de l’Ãle de Montreal (RUTA Montreal), said the situation is baffling because Central Station has been a hub for more than a century for people commuting throughout the region, yet the station has never had a wheelchair-accessible link to the Bonaventure metro station.

“It’s been at least 10 years we have been asking for Central Station to be accessible, but we’re still waiting,” Poulin said.

Those in wheelchairs arriving by metro at Bonaventure station must take two elevators to get to ground level, then go outside the building at 1000 de la Gauchetiere St. and cross the street – twice – to enter Central Station. That feat is made even more difficult when there is snow on the ground, because it can cause problems for a wheelchair’s wheels.

Once they finally get to Central Station, there is yet another barrier: wheelchair-bound commuters can’t open the closest door, because it doesn’t have a button to push it open. Instead, they must travel about 100 metres farther east, enter Central Station’s parking garage, then follow the sidewalk to one of two doors into the station. Both options require them to backtrack the extra 100 metres.

Anyone able to use their two feet can pass through in roughly half the time and over a much shorter distance.

The Agence regionale de transport metropolitain (ARTM), which manages mobility and transit in the region, has been well aware of the lack of wheelchair-friendly connections to Central Station and should have acted during the five years that the REM was under construction, Poulin said.

ARTM spokesperson Selena Champagne acknowledged that there are many architectural and engineering challenges that have to be overcome and said the ARTM is working with numerous partners, including CDPQ Infra and the owners of the buildings affected, in order to come up with a solution. There is no timeline yet outlined for the metro accessibility issue.

As for the obstacle course just trying to obtain a fare, Champagne said the agency knows about the issue and pledges to have adapted ticket dispensers installed when the next two branches of the REM network come online – sometime at the end of 2024. At that time, the fare machines in existing stations will also be replaced, Champagne said.

The groups representing those with reduced mobility are also dismayed by the unreliability of the elevators at all five REM stations.

When the REM entered into service, the only elevator at Central Station was non-functional for the first few weeks. Breakdowns were also common at other stations.

CDPQ Infra says the situation has improved recently. The elevator at Central Station had a 96-per-cent reliability rate in January, said REM spokesperson Michelle Lamarche.

“We have implemented concrete actions to reduce the number of outages,” Lamarche said. “Over the last few months, we have noticed a significant improvement in the availability of our elevators. It should be noted that our teams located in the stations can support users in the event of an elevator breakdown.”

However, there is no alternative for someone in a wheelchair, especially an electric wheelchair that can weigh 200 pounds or more, Turcotte said. The only one of the five REM stations with an alternative is Central Station, where mechanized moving platforms can be pressed into action in a pinch.

“It’s very far from the objective of the REM being a model of universal accessibility,” Turcotte said. “These platforms are for one person at a time, and users have to hold the button until their arrival. It’s not at all ideal.”

She wondered if the REM’s owners really purchased the best parts to handle ongoing use for the 20-plus hours per day the REM is in service.

“When the three (metro) stations in Laval were inaugurated (in 2007), (the elevators in those stations) were breaking down a lot, but when the STM took over ownership a few years later, they replaced a lot of the parts in the elevators to make them more robust,” Turcotte explained. “I wonder if the elevators (in the REM stations) have the most robust parts, considering they are undergoing industrial-type usage.”

If the elevators don’t work, Turcotte said, “it’s like not having a train at all for someone in a wheelchair.”

Once aboard the REM, mobility-reduced passengers have two small spaces in each car designated for wheelchairs, outlined by yellow rectangles on the floor. Each rectangle is supposed to accommodate two wheelchairs, for a total of four wheelchair spots per car (each train has two cars).

However, Turcotte points out that the rectangle is too narrow for two wheelchairs to park side by side. She is able to sit next to Bourbonniere because her wheelchair is narrower than most and says if there were two wheelchairs the same size, they would be forced to sit separately.

Turcotte is also concerned about inadequate barriers for wheelchair passengers in the case of a sudden stop. While the metro’s Azur trains have large blue barriers, which look like the backrests of benches, in the spaces reserved for wheelchairs and bicycles, the REM has just a thin rail. This makes it dangerous for anyone in a manual wheelchair because it can fall backward and throw the wheelchair occupant onto the floor.

Turcotte said this was highlighted to REM builders by the groups when they tried out the trains a year before they were put into service, but the situation still has not been corrected.

REM spokesperson Lamarche said the necessary pieces have been ordered and will be installed this spring. The barriers look like semi-circular wooden pieces attached to wooden planks that are affixed to bars already in place, according to a photo of a prototype Turcotte showed on her phone.

Getting off at the Brossard station, Turcotte points to one of the red emergency phones located near the platform and explains her concern about what might happen if someone in a wheelchair requires assistance.

The phones were lowered to the proper height at her group’s insistence, but there is a knob that people must turn in order to activate the phones. Those knobs are difficult to manipulate for anyone with reduced motor skills, which is the case for many people in wheelchairs, she explained.

Poulin, who is visually impaired, meets up with Turcotte and Bourbonniere at the Brossard station to point out other inadequacies to a reporter. He notes the textured grey guidelines on the station floor installed by the REM’s builders, which he says lead visually impaired people to the top of a staircase, right in the centre where there is no guardrail to grasp, rather than to either side where the guardrails are located.

“The guideline stops at the top of a stairway and right in the middle, with no railing, so you’re face to face with people coming up the stairway,” Poulin said. “We asked for them not to install guidelines because people aren’t used to this in Quebec.”

He points out an additional annoyance: Signs with braille writing are too high for people to reach and some of the dots on the signs have already fallen off, leading the words to be misspelled.

Lamarche said this, too, will soon be corrected.

Poulin noted his group has been working with the builders of the REM since 2018. They asked for the schematics of the stations before they were built so they could have input before construction began, but that request was denied.

“They only showed us the stations after they were built,” he said.

Bourbonniere and Turcotte then proceed to the washroom located in the South Shore bus terminal, which is owned and operated by the Reseau de transport de Longueuil. While the washroom itself has a stall that is accessible, the entrance to the washroom is a narrow passageway with a 90-degree turn, which is difficult for Bourbonniere’s wheelchair to pass through and would be more difficult or even impossible for wider scooters, he said.

Lamarche said the passageway was adjusted shortly after the REM went into service, when crews removed a paper towel dispenser and a garbage bin in order to meet the standard 1,100-millimetre width.

Poulin doesn’t accept replies from the REM’s builders that they have followed all the norms in place because they should strive to exceed those norms, rather than just adhering to the bare minimum.

“We’re disappointed and bitter because it’s all new,” he said. “There was no reason to have problems with accessibility.”

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