Ontario father, son unable to get train tickets with valid VIA Rail gift cards

Click to play video: 'Via Rail gift cards difficult to redeem'
Via Rail gift cards difficult to redeem
WATCH ABOVE: Via Rail gift cards difficult to redeem. Sean O'Shea reports – Mar 15, 2017

Two train enthusiasts recently got derailed from buying VIA Rail tickets even though they had valid gift cards for travel from the company.

The issue? Not being able to make use of the gift cards at a station in a city where there are no customer service agents.

Gregson Lodge of Guelph, Ont., and his son, Evan, love trains. The shared passion sees the father and son collect models and watch trains together from their home.

Young Evan recently composed a written log of trains he observed.

“I wrote the name of the train. I wrote how many cars it had,” said Evan, confidently referring to his hand-written log in a wire-bound notebook.

READ MORE: $4 billion Via Rail plan opts for ‘frequency’ over speed in Windsor-Quebec City region

The pair wanted to take a trip together to Toronto. A recent present, which included VIA Rail gift cards, should have made that plan easily possible.

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“She gave us two gift cards for the family. She said it should be good enough for a Toronto getaway,” said Gregson, a musician, husband, and father of three.

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But upon investigating how to redeem the gift cards, Gregson got a surprise: The tickets couldn’t be tendered to pay for VIA tickets at the Guelph VIA station. VIA’s own gift cards aren’t accepted in the company’s automated-ticket machines at the station. The station also doesn’t have VIA Rail agents. The same problem exists in other, smaller VIA stations.

“It was a little strange, yes, because technically VIA had been paid already. They were given this money and in exchange we (should) get a train ride, but it wasn’t possible to do,” said Gregson.

A VIA Rail spokesperson said the cards work fine, depending on where the cards are used.

“Customers redeem their gift cards at VIA Rail train station counters to buy train travel to any VIA destination across Canada, or to purchase travel passes,” said VIA Rail spokesperson Mariam Diaby.

But Diaby acknowledged what Lodge discovered in his effort to use the gift cards. Not only could the cards not be used in an automated kiosk, or at a station without ticket agents, the cards couldn’t be applied to use toward an online ticket purchase because the system VIA uses doesn’t permit it.

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“We are currently looking at options to upgrade our system to allow for gift card purchases online,” said Diaby.

In order to use the gift cards, a purchaser would either have to buy a ticket at a station with VIA Rail staff, or pay for the ticket out-of-pocket at an automated station and get reimbursed at another station with staff.

For gift card recipients who don’t happen to be travelling to a station with VIA staff, that’s still a problem.

“If you’re going from a station with no agent to a station with no agent, you’re out on your own until one day you can get reimbursed,” Gregson said.

READ MORE: Via Rail inaugurates Brockville station after $1-million modernization project

VIA Rail couldn’t identify how many Canadian VIA stations are unattended, like the one in Guelph, and inaccessible for gift card holders.

“I don’t have an updated figure,” said Diaby.

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