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Via Asked For Answers on Access For Disabled: Safety of New Rail Cars Called Into Question Washrooms in 'crumple Zone,' Group Says

Editor's Note: Editor's Note: The following article is reprinted from the Toronto Star, April 9, 2003 courtesy of Torstar Syndication Services.

The Canadian Transportation Agency has ordered VIA Rail to respond to complaints that its new Renaissance passenger cars are not accessible for people with disabilities.

The decision calls into question the safety of all passengers.

The agency has ruled there are 10 safety concerns, including the placement of washrooms in "crumple zones" - areas of these European-designed trains that would crumple on impact as a way of absorbing energy.

"So if you're sitting on the can and the accident occurs, you're a goner," said David Baker, the lawyer representing the Council for Canadians with Disabilities.

The council's complaint helped show that the passenger cars ran from June, 2002, until October in violation of Canadian rail safety standards.

"There was a period of time where the safety wasn't up to the level we would want it," said Transport Canada spokesman Brian McGregor. "Clearly, you don't want anyone in the (crumple) zone."

VIA closed the washrooms in the crumple zone in October in cars that are in the front of the train and the back after being ordered by Transport Canada to fix the problem on the cars that started running in June, McGregor said. The long-term solution is for VIA to relocate those washrooms.

"They've issued an order saying you've got to change the washrooms, which is what we're saying except we're adding you've got to make them accessible," he said.

The council hailed the agency's decision as a victory after the council battled VIA for almost three years over designs flaws such as:

  • Aisles and doorways too narrow to accommodate wheelchairs.

  • Inaccessible washrooms.

  • No space for guide dogs.

No movable armrests to facilitate the transfer from a wheelchair to a regular seat.

No seating available near the wheelchair tie-down area for an attendant.

But it came as a shock to the council for the disabled to learn that the trains - bought in 2000 after they were mothballed in England - did not meet Canadian safety standards.

"Canada outbid Morocco and Iraq to get these trains and they are Third world in terms of their accessibility," Baker said. "It would appear that their safety is seriously in question as well. From the standpoint of people with disabilities, they are terrible trains. It's been a terrible mistake."

David Collenette, the federal minister of transportation, met with Baker and other representatives of the council on Monday. The minister could not be reached for comment.

Built for the Chunnel - the underwater link between England and France - the Renaissance trains were mothballed in '94 when flight fares dropped. By 1998, Britain had upgraded its accessibility standards, meaning these trains wouldn't be allowed to operate there.

In April, 2000, Collenette announced a $400 million capital improvement plan for VIA, which allowed it to buy on Dec. 1 that year the fleet of 139 cars for $130 million - a bargain, VIA said at the time.

The disabilities council pressured Collenette to promise the new rail vehicles would be accessible, said Eric Norman, past chairman of the council and a member of its transportation committee.

"Mr. Collenette did promise - and it was me he promised, I was there and asked the question - when VIA used the $400 million to buy new rolling stock," Norman said.

"It would be accessible, he said, there would be no doubt about it.

Treasury Board would not release one cent to VIA until it was satisfied that the rolling stock was accessible.

"Of course, we learned that was not true, the result is what we have now."

VIA has until May 27 to explain how it will fix the problems or argue that it would be too expensive to fix.

Collenette spokesperson Anthony Polci declined comment saying it would be inappropriate given that the decision could be appealed.