Halifax couple frustrated VIA trains too narrow for their wheelchairs

Halifax couple frustrated VIA trains too narrow for their wheelchairs

A Halifax couple who use power wheelchairs are calling on VIA Rail to make the Ocean train cars accessible to everyone. 

Wendy and Guy White both need power wheelchairs. The couple were hoping to travel by train to Moncton to celebrate Wendy's mother's 94th birthday this week, but weren't able to do so because the door on VIA Rail's train was too small. 

White's mother lives in Moncton. Wendy moved to Halifax from Amherst when she realized she was going to lose the use of her legs. She needed to be closer to wheelchair-accessible services. 

"We have progressive illnesses. Each day is so valuable to us, and for my mom too," she said.  

White has not seen her mother since she lost the ability to drive in 2012 and she's saddened that they won't be able to spend the day together. 

'It would help an abundance of people'

The Ocean train that travels between Halifax and Moncton can only accommodate wheelchairs or scooters with a width smaller than 29 inches. White's wheelchair is roughly 32 inches wide. 

"If that small accommodation was made, the width to accommodate an electric chair, it would help an abundance of people," said Guy White. 

The couple cannot fly to Moncton, as that would require using a manual wheelchair, and Wendy can't transfer between the two. 

"I cannot pivot. I can't stand on my feet, so I need to stay in this wheelchair and be clipped down, be fastened, like the bus does," she said.  

The Whites don't own an accessible vehicle and inter-city buses don't have a lift that would accommodate their wheelchairs. They investigated taking a taxi to Moncton, but were told it would cost more than $1,000. 

VIA Rail response

In an email statement to CBC News, VIA Rail said its Ocean trains have an accessible room and an accessible washroom, but that scooters and wheelchairs going in and out of the accessible room have to be smaller than 29 inches. 

"VIA Rail operates some of the oldest trains in North America, some dating back to the 1950s," a spokesperson wrote. "Over the years, VIA Rail has refurbished this equipment in order to allow for the most disable[d] passengers, those who can't be transferred to a seat, to travel."

The statement said VIA Rail is committed to being the "most accessible national and inter-city mode of transportation in Canada," and that it plans to have a new fleet of trains that should be able to accommodate more passengers in wheelchairs "within three or four years from the moment we get an approval of funds." 

'We're still people that need to go places'

That timeline is not soon enough for Wendy White. She says VIA should look into retrofitting the existing trains. 

"They have an obligation to everybody — disabled people as well as able-bodied people," she said of VIA Rail's status as a Crown corporation. "We're no different. We're just people with diseases. We're still people that need to go places and need to do things."

Meanwhile, she has to be content with calling her mother on the phone and singing happy birthday. 

"We sent lots of wishes, birthday wishes and cards and flowers, but it's still not the same when you can't hug your loved one that you want to. Especially a mother that's aging," she said.