Ruling for VIA Rail disappoints disabled

Court quashes order to modify 139 cars

By Paul Waldie, Toronto

The Globe and Mail
Friday, March 11, 2005

Via Rail has had a legal victory in a battle with a disabled group over whether the railway must modify nearly one-third of its cars to make them more accessible to disabled passengers.

The case involves 139 Renaissance cars Via bought in 2000 for $140-million. Federal transport regulators ordered the railway to modify the cars, at a cost of about $50-million, after it received a complaint from the Council of Canadians with Disabilities.

Via appealed the order to the Federal Court of Appeal and in a ruling this week, the court said Via should not be required to make the modifications because it can accommodate disabled passengers elsewhere in its network.

"The rights of persons with disabilities to have equivalent access to the federal transportation network does not mean identical access or the provision of the identical services that are available to other passengers but rather it implies the notion of accommodation," the court ruled. It added that even with the Renaissance cars, "the interests of persons with disabilities will continue to be accommodated by the Via network."

The court said the cost to other passengers has to be taken into account, especially if Via is forced to raise ticket prices to pay for the modifications. And it criticized the Canadian Transportation Agency, which ordered the modifications, saying it took too narrow a view on the issue and did not look at Via's overall accommodation practices.

Laurie Beachell, the council's national coordinator, called the ruling a huge disappointment and a step backward for disabled Canadians

"What is equality but equal treatment?" he asked yesterday from his office in Winnipeg. "This is like saying only on Wednesday can women go on the train or only Thursdays can African-Canadians go on the train."

He said the council is considering appealing the ruling to the Supreme Court of Canada, but he called on the federal government to live up to a commitment it made that the cars would be accessible.

In comments aimed at Transport Minister Jean Lapierre, Mr. Beachell said: "You promised that these would be accessible. You have broken that promise. If you have any integrity you will step up to the plate and rectify the problem, you will not make Canadians with disabilities the victims in this mess that has been created by Via Rail."

Via spokesman Malcolm Andrews said the railway is studying the ruling. He added that Via remains committed to working with the council and other groups on disability issues. "We are totally committed to the whole issue of providing accessible transportation for passengers with all manner of mobility restrictions and other disabilities. And we remain committed to that," Mr. Andrews said.

In court documents, Via said the Renaissance cars were purchased on a one-time basis, mainly because they were being sold by France's Alstom Transport Ltd. at a discount, and are not "the trains of the future."

The railway also noted that less than l per cent of its passengers are disabled.

A spokeswoman for Mr. Lapierre said the decision is under review by the department and the minister could not comment.