The most obvious argument for renewed rail service in the North is the issue of literal physical accessibility. Rail service is unique in being the only means of transportation that can literally connect communities across geographic areas – something that is critical in a country as big and geographically diverse as Canada. For many people living in remote communities, such as Oba, Franz, and the Trout Lake Community, passenger rail service was the only safe and reliable way to access education and healthcare. However, the argument for accessibility is complex and layered, and there are a number of other elements that come into play when defining something as ‘accessible.’
People with chronic conditions and limited mobility may experience difficulty planning a trip, especially since everyday tasks, let alone jumping on a plane or train, can seem very daunting. Since trains are spacious and user-friendly, rail provides accessible transportation for people with disabilities, especially people who cannot fly safely due to the risk it would be to their health. Many people who have suffered from epilepsy, take certain prescription medications, or who have experienced any serious head injuries can risk losing their license (Ontario Ministry of Transportation, 2009). This issue becomes more severe due to the fact that there are health concerns with sitting for very long periods of time on bus travel, where there is limited leg room and travelers do not have as much space to stand up and walk around to circulate blood and loosen muscles (NEORN, 2013). Not to mention, accessibility for people in wheelchairs is much better on trains than buses. As a result of the cancellation of rail service in Northern Ontario, these travel limitations can be detrimental to the social and mental health of many people who need access to reliable transportation, especially for long trips. To put this issue into perspective, consider that in 2012, Statistics Canada reported that 1.8 million people in Ontario ages 15+ have a disability (NEORN, 2016). Moreover, with an increasingly aging population in Northern Ontario, rail service is more important now than ever before. While many cannot drive anymore, certain conditions can make flying and long distance bus travel cumbersome or impossible.
(Photo credit from Ottawa Catholic School Board)
There are a number of mental barriers that prevent people from driving. Anxiety, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and depression are mental illnesses that may not legally prevent someone from driving, but will create barriers in their minds that make them feel as though they cannot drive or could not handle the pressure of driving (Tyrell, 2015). A lot of this has to do with fear of hurting themselves or someone else. In addition to this, any mental illness or medication that affects the memory, creates suicidal thoughts, causes erratic behavioural disruptions, affects the ability to concentrate, causes drowsiness, or evokes feelings of agitation or irritation can seriously influence a person’s ability to drive (DVLA, 2016). In fact, they may even be reported as medically unfit to drive by a physician or nurse practitioner. This could result in them either never learning to drive at all or having their license taken away.
There are also certain pervasive disorders, including Autism Spectrum Disorders, Asperger’s Syndrome, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), and severe communication disorders, as well as particular learning disabilities that can completely hinder a person’s ability to learn how to drive safely (DVLA, 2016). This issue is more pronounced in Northern Ontario, as our population is overall much older than in other parts of the country. For many folks, as they get older, they develop neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, which reduces a person’s ability to perform everyday activities as a result of decline in memory or other thinking skills (DVLA ,2016). For individuals affected, their mobility becomes entirely dependent on other people, as they are no longer fit to get behind the wheel of a car and drive.
While some people fear driving long distances on highways, but are perfectly comfortable driving to the corner store and back, many would be perfectly happy to cruise the highways in the summer, but shudder at the thought of highway driving in the cruel winter months (Tyrell, 2015). However, there are some that have a perpetual fear of driving that leads them to quit driving altogether (Tyrell, 2015). Regardless of the reasoning behind not driving, anyone who avoids getting behind the wheel of a car will see their social and family lives suffer as a result, especially for those of us who have family a great distance apart. This tends to affect people more so as they get older, as they become timid, and can sometimes become confused or uncomfortable at the thought of driving out of their comfort zone. Not only does this deprive them of opportunities, but it also takes away an element of their freedom and control.
And it is no wonder why anyone would feel this way about the roads, especially throughout harsh, Canadian winters. In the year 2012, as reported by Transport Canada, 1,823 fatal accidents occurred on Canadian highways. Of those 1,823, there were 2,077 fatalities (Transport Canada, 2012). That isn’t including the 122,140 other incidents that resulted in personal injury (Transport Canada, 2012).
Statistics for train travel are much more positive. In the same year, 2012, of the 1,051 rail accidents that occurred in Canada, there were only 82 total fatalities (Transportation Safety Board of Canada). Majority of train fatalities, 78 of the 82, were the result of crossing and trespassing by pedestrians, not massive derailments, which only caused 4 (Transportation Safety Board of Canada, 2012).
Regardless of why a person is considered mentally or physically unfit to drive, whether they have self-diagnosed or been diagnosed by a physician, the result is limited freedom and limited means to travel, especially in Northern Ontario, where accessing communities and businesses outside of your community can be extremely difficult and cumbersome. Without train service, many people in Northern Ontario are missing out on opportunities to travel socially, travel to and from remote locations, access their business and properties, and exercise their freedom to move from place to place without psychological strain or physical limitations.
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Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DLVA). (2016). 4 Psychiatric Disorders – DVLA Assessing Fitness to Drive Guide. Retrieved from https://patient.info/pdf/13219.pdf
Northern & Eastern Ontario Rail Network. (July, 2016). Comments on Northern Ontario Multimodal Transportation Strategy. North Bay, Ontario.
Ontario Ministry of Transportation. (2009). Medical Review of Drivers. Retrieved from http://www.mto.gov.on.ca/english/safety/medical-review-drivers.shtml
Transport Canada. (2012). Canadian Motor Vehicle Tragic Collision Statistics 2012: Collected in cooperation with the Canadian Council of Motor Administrators. Canada: Government of Canada.
Transportation Safety Board of Canada. (2015). Statistical Summary – Railway Occurrences Data Tables. Retrieved from http://www.tsb.gc.ca/eng/stats/rail/2015/sser-ssro-2015-tbls.asp#sser-ssro-2015-tbl-02″
Tyrrell, M. (2007). Are You Scared of Driving? Retrieved from http://www.uncommonhelp.me/articles/are-you-scared-of-driving