By Ian MacAlpine
Kingston Whig-Standard, August 6, 2013
KINGSTON – A woman, who requires a power chair to get around, staged a sit-in Friday night, refusing to leave a Via Rail train until her complaints about accessibility issues were dealt with.
The passenger train was stopped at Kingston station as Louise Bark and her four-year-old service dog Bruce were returning from Toronto after 8 p.m.
Bark uses a power chair to get around and on Friday she refused to disembark the train when she realized it was stopping on Track 2 on the south side of the station across the tracks.
Bark says it is easy for her to get off the train on the station’s Track 1 as they are located right in front of the station.
Track 2, however, is anything but easy, according to Bark.
Bark, who takes the train to Toronto a couple of times a month for medical appointments, said she’s had problems in the past with the lift that takes disabled passengers under the tracks in a tunnel. In the past it has not worked at all or has broken down while she’s on it.
“I can’t tell you how often I’ve been stranded and suspended in mid-air,” she wrote the Whig-Standard in an email.
She said Track 2 has no toilet, no amenities and no reasonable way for someone in a power chair to get over the tracks to the main side.
She said the breakdown of the lift has been a longstanding problem, dating back to at least 2008.
Back then she served on the Provincial Transportation Standards Writing Committee which recommended integrated accessibility standards for the province when it came to transportation.
“When I was on that committee our goal was to provide advice and work with transit to improve accessibility on transit,” said Bark. “But it was just ironic that I was dealing with transit and here I am running into problems with the lift that doesn’t work.”
Bark said the committee just had jurisdiction over provincial transit but Via Rail is federally regulated so her committee recommendations weren’t recognized.
Bark, who is a former member of the city’s accessibility committee, said the best way to solve the accessibility problems for those who use the train is to have the train stop in Kingston on Track 1.
She said that system seemed to work fine for a while but lately the service has become sporadic as the trains were stopping at either Track 1 or Track 2.
She reminded the Kingston Via staff about her request a few weeks before her trip and before she got on the train bound for Toronto on Thursday she reminded them again and was assured her request would be granted.
She also mentioned her request to the Kingston-bound train personnel on Friday but the train still stopped on Track 2.
“Everywhere I turn it seems to be one thing after the other in frustration and the train seemed to be a tipping point,” she said.
So Bark decided to have a sit-in and not leave the train until her request was granted.
Via decided to move the train east of the station, go over a switch and back up so Bark could be let off on Track 1.
The situation took less than 30 minutes to be resolved.
Bark said the Kingston train was empty of passengers except for her as Kingston was the final destination. She’s not sure if the manoeuvring delayed any other passenger or freight traffic on the Windsor-to-Quebec City corridor line.
“When I saw they were on Track 2 my patience had run thin,” she said. “I don’t want to inconvenience people but it’s my limit.”
She added that throughout the whole ordeal the Kingston Via staff have been quite helpful.
“They were excellent. By this time they knew I had enough,” she said.
Bark blames the problems on a lack of communication within Via Rail.
“They’ve bent over backwards to try to accommodate it and somewhere, somehow communications break down,” she said.
Via provides priority boarding and additional assistance for people with accessibility issues.
She said being dropped off on Track 2 has caused her to miss connecting bus rides home or to other appointments.
“My hope is by doing this it will have an impact. They know what to do and if they make a mistake it shouldn’t be at my expense,” she said.
Bark said the Kingston Via station needs to get some funding to make it fully accessible like other train stations in the area.
Unlike Kingston, stations in Belleville, Cobourg and Oshawa have received or are about to receive, fully accessible walkways over the tracks.
“They (other communities) were given infrastructure money from the feds to build a new station with an elevator that goes up, a walkway to go across and an elevator to go down,” she said.
“I don’t understand why Kingston got passed over.”
Mylene Belanger, of the Via Rail media relations department, said the train stopping on Track 2 can be blamed on poor communication.
“A special request was made by the passenger ahead of time,” said Belanger in an email. “Unfortunately, there was a miscommunication. Despite the inconvenience to the passenger, Via Rail was able to detrain the passenger after moving the train to the other platform. We apologized to the customer. We will offer her service recovery.”
According to Via Rail’s website they have special areas on their trains to accommodate wheelchairs but it doesn’t mention anything about accessibility at particular Via Rail stations.
“We are very sorry for this situation,” said Belanger. “We will make every effort to ensure this doesn’t happen again. Via Rail is committed to maintaining the highest standards of accessibility in order to ensure comfort and security for its clients with reduced mobility and persons with other impairments.”