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How VIA Rail Canada keeps accessibility on track
By Nancy Baye and Saada Branker

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VIA Rail is Canada’s national inter-city passenger rail operator, owned by the Canadian government. Its train routes help passengers reach destinations of their choice, from national scenic attractions to metropolitan hubs to coastal villages.

Vast is one way to describe the terrain of this second largest country in the world. In 2021, VIA made 1.5 million passenger trips across Canada. Most of these provided either rapid service or cross-country transportation between cities including Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal, Quebec City and Halifax. Their 225 weekly departures – of which 86 percent left on time – serve more than 400 Canadian communities.

VIA’s accessibility mission statement and vision: “We strive to be Canada’s most accessible national and intercity mode of transportation. Our vision is to be a smarter way to move people by ensuring access to a sustainable, affordable and accessible means of transportation. By promoting better accessibility, we are improving the customer experience for all our passengers as part of a barrier-free Canada.”

To this end, frontline employees are trained in how to assist and interact with customers with disabilities. Disability advocacy groups review this training. Also, office staff and upper management all have accessibility awareness training.

We found further information about VIA’s insight into disability in their 2021 Annual Report where Catherine Langlois, Senior Advisor, Universal Accessibility said, “The biggest barrier to travellers with disabilities and the people supporting them – whether caregivers or VIA Rail employees – is not knowing what is needed, what to expect, who will help and how. Listening to those directly affected and learning about their travelling pain points – like why is a couple with disabilities required to travel in separate cars – is the biggest motivator for positive change.”

Accessible Journeys invited journalist Saada Branker, frequent traveller on VIA’s Corridor route from Toronto to Montreal, to speak with Catherine Langlois. Here are excerpts from that interview.

SB:  Tell us about your role and what an average day is like for you as Senior Advisor Universal Accessibility for VIA Rail.

CL:  My role is to create, in collaboration with all the departments, the multi-year accessibility plan as per the Accessible Canada Act (ACA) overview and follow up on every project with that plan. I also make sure VIA Rail complies with all requirements of the Canadian Transportation Agency, answer all internal questions on accessibility norms from vocabulary to construction standards, ensure website compliance and so on. So, there is no average day!

SB:  What have you learned about accessibility and adapted services for people with disabilities?

CL:  We, and this includes all industries, have to listen more carefully to the needs of people with disabilities in order to create products and services that fulfill their needs.

SB:  How does VIA Rail inform itself on the quality of their accessibility and adapted services to know what’s working and what needs improvement?

CL: My team receives data, and we review them monthly. We have reviews on the complaints and comments related to accessibility, we have an advisory committee, and we have a section on our website for retroaction on the accessibility plan. Meaning, people can give us their feedback regarding the content of our Multi-Year Accessibility plan.

SB:  What accessibility projects or initiatives is VIA currently planning for its passengers with disabilities?

CL:  Our new fleet of fully accessible trains is being deployed in the Corridor. This is the Quebec City–Windsor Corridor, which has the heaviest passenger train frequency in Canada. We released the first train last fall and we will continue to add new trains in 2023 and 2024. We will implement hearing loops at 37 stations this fall. We will start phase one of a project on autonomous wayfinding at Ottawa station in 2024.

(Wayfinding encompasses all the ways that people orient themselves and navigate in any physical space. Wayfinding software, usually on kiosks or smartphones, helps users find a location quickly and easily. Autonomous wayfinding is navigation that can direct the user through their route without manual input or human guidance.)

SB:  Is there anything else you’d like to share about accessibility and adapted services at VIA Rail?

CL:  We believe in removing barriers so all Canadians can access an accessible, comfortable and safe way to travel. We are not there yet, but VIA Rail is working hard to be the most accessible mode of travel in Canada.

Accessibility on VIA’s website and beyond

Website accessibility is critical so customers can access all the information needed for their trip. VIA Rail has centralized accessibility-related information on their Accessibility page. They also offer sign language videos. A yearly audit of the website’s accessibility helps keep it compliant with accessibility standards and regulations.

Any accessibility-related feedback is welcomed. It is reviewed and prioritized by the Accessibility Team, who prescribe the best action to take. The Accessibility webpage centralises relevant information and the site offers ways that people can share their feedback.

Catherine notes that Via Rail’s web content is reviewed annually, by a digital accessibility consultant to audit any content that isn’t accessible and recommend changes. They aim to have the site fully accessible and in line with best practices in digital accessibility, by the end of 2023. A new reservation system is also being implemented.

VIA Rail’s universal accessibility advisory committee, comprised of people from various advocacy groups to ensure that different types of disabilities are well represented, also tests the website annually and makes suggestions. Going beyond that, VIA also works with other advocacy and accessibility groups, collaborating with people with disabilities for workshops and consultations on projects, such as the service animal relief areas and the new Corridor Fleet project.

The new Corridor Fleet

The Corridor Fleet is the Quebec City–Windsor Corridor, which has the heaviest passenger train frequency in Canada. People with disabilities will have a comfortable journey with these on-board amenities and facilities:

  • Six wheelchair lifts and five mobility-aid spaces per trainset
  • Spacious accessible washrooms with push-button sliding powered doors, more grab bars and generous floor space to permit wheelchair manoeuverability
  • Braille and/or embossing on signage and buttons. Menus in Braille, or large print, are available on request
  • Attendant call buttons at all mobility-aid spaces and in all accessible washrooms
  • An updated announcement system delivers automated messages in audio and visual formats, with multiple screens showing the train’s route and location
  • Mobility-aid spaces with dedicated luggage racks and space for service dogs

VIA continues to push their Accessibility mission statement and vision forward. The coming year should be an exciting one for everyone who journeys on VIA, going full steam ahead.

See VIA Rail in action here.

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