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Heritage Park unveils custom built accessible train car

Taking part in a visit to the past at Heritage Park no longer means having to live with the decisions of past design.

The park unveiled their newest train car—the Nightingale—on June 28, which is fully accessible to passengers with mobility challenges.

The new passenger car, which began life more than 100 years ago as a flat bed rail car, was completely built up to its current form in-house by Heritage Park’s railroad team.

“This is the number one thing to do at Heritage Park, ride the train, and up until now it’s been exceptionally difficult for anybody in a wheelchair,” said Lindsey Galloway, President and CEO of Heritage Park.

“The idea of leaving kids behind in a wheelchair to do the number one thing at Heritage Park has always been heartbreaking. So this is a really really proud moment for us because it means no one gets left behind.”

For long-time Heritage Park visitor Mike Jorgensen, who himself requires a wheelchair, the Nightingale offers him the opportunity to once again ride the steam train after decades of being unable.

“I was able to as a child. My parents were able to lift me out of my wheelchair and carry me up onto the train, and leave my wheelchair on the platform. But as I grew, that wasn’t really feasible to do anymore,” he said.

“It’s really cool to do that experience going around the park again.”

Jorgensen was one of the first visitors able to take the inaugural ride of the car, making a full loop of the park from the Marda Loop station.

“It just brings back memories from my childhood. It’s just really cool for everyone to have a chance to ride the train and see some of Alberta’s history,” he said.

The stairs are lowered on Heritage Park’s new Nightingale train car, which is fully accessible to passengers with mobility challenges, on Wednesday, June 28, 2023. ARYN TOOMBS / FOR LIVEWIRE CALGARY

Project began during the pandemic

Galloway said that the desire to build the accessible passenger car began during the pandemic when the park was doing a lot of reflection on how to engage with the public.

He said that CPKC (formerly known as Canadian Pacific before its merger with Kansas City Southern), individual donors, and the federal government stepped up to help make the project a reality.

The Government of Canada via Prairies Economic Development Canada provided $438,750 towards the more than $600,000 project cost.

“We landed all the money last spring, and so in the 10 months after that, we built this beauty all in-house,” Galloway said.

The car’s passenger carriage was built by the Heritage Park team onto the flatbed car, and was supplemented by an accessible staircase and a wheelchair lift.

The interior of the car also has wheel tie-downs for wheelchair users, something that Jorgensen said makes him feel safe while riding the train.

“It’s a lot safer for me, it’s a lot more comfortable, a lot more enjoyable,” he said.

The entire build took 10 months.

Heritage Park working to make more of the park accessible

Galloway said that approximately 70 per cent of Heritage Park visitors use the train, and that, like all of the park’s experiences, needs to become more accessible to individuals with mobility challenges.

“This is Calgary’s space, which means it needs to be accessible to all Calgarians. Accessibility is something we’re absolutely committed to at Heritage Park,” Galloway said.

“This accessible railcar is one step in many that we’ll be taking to improve the accessibility so that all Calgarians can come and discover not the train, but the stories of our past.”

Among the other changes the park has made to become more accessible is changing the grade of access to certain exhibits at the park, like the coal mine, with switchbacks.

Galloway said that they are currently looking at replacing some of the gravel pathways with a material that will be easier for visitors to traverse when they are using wheels, and building ramps where it is possible to do so.

“It doesn’t necessarily apply to every building because these are historic functions, there’s only so much we can do. But where we can provide access, we will be,” Galloway said.