RAIL on the right track

Mabel Higgins, vice-president of the grassroots Rail Advocacy In Lambton, at Sarnia’s train station.

When Ross and Donna Free, both in their 80s, discovered they couldn’t purchase VIA Rail tickets in Sarnia a few days prior to their trip, they drove through a snowstorm to buy them at the London station.

The Frees couldn’t find a phone number for the Sarnia station and didn’t have a computer to buy tickets online.

“It’s ridiculous,” says their daughter Rebecca Free-Archibald.  “My parents aren’t the sort to buy their tickets the day of their trip. Like a lot of people, they want to plan ahead.”

Since VIA laid off all staff at the Sarnia station and cut trains to one departure and one arrival a day, the automated ticket machine inside the station is available on a very limited basis.

It’s not good enough, especially for seniors, said Free-Archibald.

She attempted to help her parents buy their tickets online but the system refused to accept payment with their credit card.

“Keep in mind, my parents are 80-years-old. Technology is foreign to them,” Free-Archibald said. “My father decided that he and my mother would drive to London in a snowstorm to get their tickets … this is not OK.”

She took her frustrations to Mayor Mike Bradley, who shared the Free’s story with a local group of lobbyists.

“Their experience is exactly what motivated our group to start,” said Mabel Higgins, vice-president of RAIL (Rail Advocacy In Lambton).

RAIL formed a year ago and attracts about 150 people to its events, Higgins said.  “We have a list of 2,000 supporters.

“We’re part of a real movement spreading across the country that wants improvements in our transportation system.”

She’s meeting with VIA officials in Toronto this week to talk about passenger rail service in Southwestern Ontario.  Higgins will make her case with members of the Canadian Federation of University Women from Stratford.

“The fact you can’t access the ticket machine in Sarnia would be so simple to fix,” Higgins said. “In the U.S., I can get tickets from an outdoor machine that’s on the platform when stations aren’t manned.”

If you are computer-saavy VIA tickets aren’t difficult to reserve usually, Free-Archibald said.

“But many people who want to use the train are seniors. I work with them and very few have computers.  Surely, we can get a manned ticket kiosk in Sarnia.”

Just as critical is the dwindling number of trains coming into Sarnia, Higgins added.

“We’ve had some success already when VIA announced that train 84 leaving Sarnia will connect with a London train and make it possible to arrive in Toronto earlier.

“But we have much more to do.”

Meanwhile, a resolution to address VIA Rail cutbacks was given highest priority at the Ontario Liberal party policy convention in February.

The policy resolution to develop a national transportation strategy originated with the Sarnia-Lambton Federal Liberal Association. More than 3,000 signatures, primarily from local residents, are on a non-partisan petition that can be accessed at www.sarveourtrain.ca.

For more information about RAIL, visit www.e-rail.ca.

– Cathy Dobson