In Accessible Transportation, Accessible Travel, News & Blog

Travelling with a disability can be a daunting process. When Suzan Jennings decided to use VIA Rail to travel from Sarnia to Ottawa, she was pleasantly surprised by the accessibility accommodations.

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Suzan and her partner John ready to board.

Travel is not fun. The anticipation. The worry. The delays. The jet lag. The packing. The unpacking. The feeling of being uncomfortable. The tight seats. The crying babies. The people coughing. The noisy passengers. The unprofessional staff. So what does all this have to do with our recent ‘train day’ aboard VIA Rail; nothing. In fact, it was the complete opposite.

As a person with a disability, who 9 years ago was completely paralyzed from the neck down after contracting a very rare neurological disease called Guillain-Barré Syndrome; had my left knee completely replaced October 2011 and my right April 2016 and this past year, was diagnosed with Invasive Lobular Carcinoma (Breast Cancer) and who subsequently had several surgeries including a double mastectomy only a few months ago…well, you can well imagine my apprehension to embark on our recent adventure which would involve planes, trains and automobiles. RIGHT! A crazy idea on so many levels. Like the ‘chug a lug’ sound of a train gaining speed, I just ‘keep on keeping on’!

“Like the ‘chug a lug’ sound of a train gaining speed, I just ‘keep on keeping on’!”

As the delegate representing the Victoria Disability Resource Centre, I was going to be travelling to Ottawa to attend the National Conference & AGM for Independent Living Canada; a national umbrella organization that envisions an inclusive and accessible society where people with disabilities are valued equally and participate fully; my thought was to fly into Sarnia a few days before to visit with some of my relatives who I had not seen in 30 years. We would then take VIA Rail from Sarnia to Ottawa, stopping in Kingston to visit Lynn, one of my dearest friends from high school. I checked VIA Rail’s website and this was their position and wording on accessibility services offered “Passengers with reduced mobility will receive special attention from our personnel. These special services vary from one region to another depending on station facilities and train cars.” We contacted VIA Rail and we made the necessary travel arrangements.

At 5:30am our train day began with our arrival at the station for a 6:00am departure. This was an unmanned station with a comfortable waiting room. When we went out to the platform, because my ticket identified me as requiring special boarding assistance, we were greeted by two agents off the train who asked if we were ‘The Jennings and welcome aboard’. My cousin Maddie and her husband Rob, who drove us, were very impressed with this personalized attention.

“When we went out to the platform, because my ticket identified me as requiring special boarding assistance, we were greeted by 2 agents off the train who asked if we were ‘The Jennings and welcome aboard’.”

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Suzan taking the lift onto the train.

I was then asked if I required the lift. I said yes and they went to an outside storage bin and brought out a portable lift and asked if I required the manual wheelchair as well. I opted to use ‘pinky’ {my walker} and over to the stairs we went. They pushed this manual lift up against the car stairs and I walked onto it. Joe, the Service Manager and Lance, hand cranked me up until I was level with the train landing. Then a flap came down and aboard the train I went.

Once aboard, Guylane and Jose settled us into our comfortable seats, took my walker and showed us the accessible features of the train car such as where wheelchairs, scooters, walkers are tied down. We then waved goodbye to Maddie and Rob and it was at this particular moment that John {who now resembled a small boy on the train for the first time} looked at me, grabbed my hand and we gushed about how exciting this day aboard VIA Rail was going to be!

On this day, we had high expectations that our train experience would be better than our air experience…and it was. From the departure at the Sarnia Train Station to our arrival at the Ottawa Train Station, we were met with warm smiles, gentle interactions, amazing food, attentive service and large comfortable seating. We met such dazzling staff along the way such as Andrew, Avril and Jason London to Toronto; Don, Derek, Justin, Julie and Carole Toronto to Kingston and Lorraine, Karim and Jacques on our final portion Kingston to Ottawa. As a bonus for persons with disabilities, the accessible washroom even included a transfer seat. All in all, it was a wonderful day aboard VIA Rail with inclusive features throughout our journey which opened our eyes to the endless possibilities that VIA Rail can deliver.

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