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Wheelchair user says Calgary’s CTrains are anything but accessible

As a wheelchair user, Stewart Midwinter says taking the CTrain is a bit like a game of chance.

The game begins as the train rolls up to the platform. The first question is – where will the train doors be relative to his position on the platform?

If he’s really lucky, the door will more-or-less be in front of where he’s parked his wheelchair.

At this point, Midwinter, a quadriplegic, is looking for a blue light above the door that a lot of riders probably have never even noticed.

“The blue light indicates where the handicap accessible door is,” he said. “But here’s the thing – every time you go to the platform you’re playing whack-a-mole. Where on the platform will this accessible door be? Sometimes there’s all four. And sometimes there’s only one.”

He said the latter scenario is more common than the former. Not every ramp is working all of the time.

What he’d like to see is a blue zone painted on every platform which would line up with a wheelchair zone every time. A city spokesperson told LiveWire this would likely not work in practice.

Midwinter has limited use of his hands. Sometimes he’s able to press the special button that activates the CTrain ramp. But that’s only if he’s lucky. Sometimes he may be travelling with an able-bodied friend who can hit the button for him. But more often, he’s trying to navigate the city solo.

“In practice, this means I have to chat up a stranger on the platform, and enlist her or him to help me, and explain the situation,” said Midwinter.

A city spokesperson said all trains have a 15-second window for users to activate the wheelchair ramp.

If the doors don’t line up just right, if it’s not a blue-light door, and if he’s not able to press the button right away, Midwinter said he’s often left on the platform, waiting to try again 10 or 15 minutes later when the next train pulls up.

Having the ramp come down is pretty much essential for Midwinter. He said on the first and second generation CTrain cars, there’s a three-inch difference between the platforms and the train floors.

The oldest cars – the U2 models from the early 1980s—have a pole in the middle of each doorway. These have been modified to allow wheelchair users to squeeze by.

The newest cars – the Mask model – have floors flush with the platforms and a more open design. He said these trains are much better.

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If it’s not rush hour, and the ramp doesn’t work, Midwinter will sometimes roll the dice one more time in a bid to get aboard the train.

“What I have to do is take a run at it and hit the train like a curb, and hope my wheelchair bounces up and into the car,” he said. “Often when it does that, I lurch into the car, go half way across the floor before I can stop. People have to jump out of the way. It’s hard on my wheelchair and I don’t want to do that. If I damage it, I’m not moving another metre.”

Midwinter said in his experience, Calgary Transit is sending out train cars that aren’t fully accessible. He said one trip in particular left him feeling concerned. He boarded the train at a station with doors opening on the left, but arrived at a station that had doors opening on the right. That was when he realized the problem.

“My mouth dropped. They had yellow tape across (the ramp button) and it says out of service. So wait a minute – I just got on a train that has the door welded shut?”

In that case he was able to make it to another door and drive his wheelchair off the train without a ramp. But he said not every wheelchair user would’ve had the strength or ability to do that. It certainly wouldn’t have happened at rush hour with a train full of people.

Midwinter says when he brings up these concerns, he’s often told that the city has created Access Calgary – the specialized bus and taxi service for the disabled.

“Recognize that handicapped users aren’t asking for anything special,” he said. “They’re asking for the same level of service that they’re paying for – the same as everyone else.”

The city says these ramp buttons need to be flush with the surface to prevent people from bumping them, but people with limited dexterity find them difficult to push. (Brodie Thomas/ LiveWire)

Midwinter said drop-off and pick-up times with Access Calgary need to be arranged at least the day before. The cutoff time for requests is 1 pm. He says this isn’t good enough, and he wants the freedom and spontaneity afforded to everyone else who can use the transit system.

“The transit system is always available,” he said. “You don’t have to make a reservation – you don’t have to book two days in advance.”

Midwinter says there’s even a financial argument for accessibility. When Access Calgary can’t send a bus for multiple passengers in the same area, the service will send an accessible cab, charging the wheelchair user a regular bus fare and paying the difference to the driver.

“When it’s a cab, I look at the meter. You don’t go anywhere in the city for less than 30 bucks. Because I cannot use an LRT to travel across the city, which costs the city $6.50, I give the taxi driver the three dollar bus ticket, and the city pays the transit driver $30.”

He thinks the financial incentive alone should have Calgary Transit making modifications to help users like him.

Coun. Druh Farrell raised the wheelchair ramp issue at last Monday’s regular council meeting during question period. She described trying to take her elderly mother – who is in a wheelchair – on the CTrain. She said a three-train car arrived, and none of the cars had a working ramp.

“It was very difficult as we were trying to get from door to door to test the doors to see if the ramp would go down,” said Farrell. “But all three trains, all three cars – there was no ramp.

“How are we going to possibly cope with an accessible city if we’re wanting to host the Paralympics as an example, and how can we retrofit these cars in advance of buying new rail cars to ensure that we have public transit that’s accessible to everyone?”

Michael Thompson, the city’s general manager of Transportation, told Farrell that the problem she encountered was with old U2 train cars from the 1980s

“Originally they didn’t have ramps to make them wheelchair accessible. We retrofitted the bar so that wheelchairs can pass through that,” said Thompson.

Farrell insisted that none of the cars had ramps, despite having a button showing a wheelchair ramp.

Livewire requested an interview with someone from the transportation department. In an email, a spokesperson noted that in the past two years, transportation has only received six complaints about ramps.

“Three were passengers who felt the operators weren’t doing enough and three were about lack of ramps and poor signage,” said the spokesperson.

The spokesperson also noted 15,000 Calgarians use the Access Calgary service, describing it as a “lifeline.”

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Midwinter said as the city changes more bus routes to complement the CTrain system, he’s less able to get around the city.

“Many buses have now been routed so they go to the LRT system,” he said. “It’s like a hub and spoke thing. So If you’re in Somerset, you can’t take a bus directly to the downtown. You have to take a bus to the LRT and then take the LRT.”

The problem doesn’t end at the train. One of Midwinter’s biggest obstacles is when he gets off the train at the Jubilee Station, which is rolling-distance from his home.

One-way gates that swing outwards force pedestrians to stop and look before crossing the tracks. These gates can also be found at the Sunnyside Station, although those gates have handles.

Midwinter needs a stranger to open the gates for him. He once arrived at the station on a Sunday evening, and was trapped on the platform for 10 minutes.

“There is no valid argument for leaving the gates,” he said. “Clearly the transit system operates successfully without the gates.”

He says the bus system remains a good service, mainly because of good ramps, and good drivers who are there to help – but the trains need much work.

“The train system is essentially inaccessible,” he said. “Most people will not struggle. Most people do not like the frustration. They do not like being discriminated against.

“There are many more people who could be using it – but most of them are just tired of fighting.”