VIA Rail Moves Modernise Services and Infrastructure

Interview with VIA by Railways Association of Canada

VIA Rail is currently hard at work modernizing its passenger rail services and infrastructure. The Crown Corporation (and long-time RAC member) is focused on offering safe, reliable, and enjoyable travel experiences for all. VIA’s commitment to sustainable travel is not just environmental, nor economic – it’s about reflecting and serving the needs of all Canadians – now and for generations to come.

We spoke to Martine Rivard, VIA Rail’s Chief Employee Experience Officer, about the company’s journey toward equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) as a cornerstone for growth.

Via Rail: Providing accessible transport for all Canadians

1. VIA Rail goes well beyond legal requirements to promote inclusion and diversity in its employee ranks. What business value have you found in doing so? 

At VIA Rail, our commitment to Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) is not just a check in the box or a “nice to have”. We consider it a business priority, because we firmly believe that EDI fosters behaviors which increase employee engagement, performance, and productivity. In addition, EDI is a key to creativity and innovation because it opens the door to different perspectives, experiences, and expertise. A workforce that truly reflects the diversity of Canadian society helps us strengthen passenger rail service for people and communities across Canada.

2. As part of VIA’s EDI efforts, you’ve reviewed programs, systems, policies, and practices to ensure they are fit for purpose and result in a workforce that is representative of the Canadian public. Give us a sense of the ‘from…to’ and where your EDI journey will take you next?

At VIA Rail we view EDI as a journey not a destination. The principals of EDI have always been at our core, but we recommitted to the journey last year when we launched our EDI strategy and action plan and put our 3-year plan together. In addition, we established a Diversity & Inclusion (D&I) committee that supports the deployment of the strategy and provides an advisory role on EDI efforts to ensure alignment within the organization objectives. Last year, we began deploying awareness sessions to educate employees on what EDI means and how it translates into our day-to-day and impacts us. As we continue educating employees this year, we are going to be launching a mandatory training on EDI for all managers to foster inclusive behaviors and adopt an inclusive mindset to help us build a culture of inclusion where everyone feels a sense of belonging. In addition, a network of D&I employee ambassadors is being launched to advance the D&I efforts across the organization and ensure that we are staying connected with them.

3. How does your focus on employee EDI translate into an improved customer experience?

Our EDI efforts support our mission to put the passenger first and improve customer experience in two ways: 

  • The first is the power of diversity when customers see employees that look like them and people they can relate to.
  • The second is the power inclusivity, and how employees with an inclusive mindset accept, respect, and value the diverse backgrounds that people bring onboard.  

An employee with an inclusive mindset is one that is empathic and able to connect and accommodate the needs of all customers. That goes a long way, and leaves customers with a sense of belonging.

4. We understand for instance that VIA is doing a one-year pilot project to improve the travel experiences of people living with hearing loss. Tell us about that, and how VIA’s EDI approach opens the door for innovation (on accessibility and other fronts)? 

VIA Rail has solicited and received feedback from the public about improving the accessibility of our services. One of the comments raised on several occasions was about including hearing loops at ticket counters in VIA Rail stations for people who are hard of hearing.  

A “hearing induction loop” is technology sometimes added to ticket counters, auditoriums, places of worship, or really anywhere people communicate through conversation and dialogue. It improves the sound quality for people wearing hearing devices, such as hearing aids and cochlear implants. We saw this feedback as an opportunity to better serve people living with invisible disabilities, an often-underserved segment of our population. So, VIA Rail decided to proceed with a one-year pilot project in the Ottawa and Montreal stations by installing these loops at our ticket counters. We believe strongly in EDI values. We see it as our responsibility as a Crown corporation to set an example and be a leader in EDI in hopes that others will follow suit to remove barriers and establish higher standards. 

We are excited for the first trainset of our new fleet to go into service later this year. By 2025, 32 brand new trains will be rolling in the Québec City-Windsor corridor and these trains are a building block to VIA Rail’s modernization plan which will help us contribute to a more connected Canada. In addition to being one of the most environmentally friendly fleets in North America, this new fleet will offer an unparalleled, barrier-free, and fully accessible travel experience.   

5. As VIA prepares for the rollout of your new fleet, what EDI considerations are being taken on board?

We accomplished this by holding working sessions with people representing various of disability advocacy groups and this approach allowed us to customize the train design to the diversity of our passengers. Some of the features resulting from these working group sessions include:

  • Five (5) Mobility Aid Spaces (MAS) per trainset (for which we exceed the capacity standards). 
  • Each trainset has three (3) cars with onboard wheelchair lifts available in Economy class and Business class. 
  • Large and fully accessible washrooms (3 per trainset) with emergency and attendant call buttons. 
  • Braille and embossed signage. 
  • At-seat attendant call buttons at Mobility Aid Spaces. 
  • Onboard announcements available in both audio and visual formats. 
  • Mobility Aid Spaces will have power and USB outlets and adjustable tray tables. 
  • More space available for support dogs compared to current fleet. 
  • A baggage rack will be dedicated to users of Mobility Aid Spaces. 
  • A jump seat will be available in Mobility Aid Spaces for support persons (if needed). 

With our new fleet, we show our commitment to acting today for a better tomorrow, and it is one of the many projects that will allow VIA Rail to contribute to Canada’s post-pandemic recovery and continue to be the smarter way to travel.

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