January 29, 2020

After $25,000 fee, wheelchair users wait for better Amtrak stations, trains

Source: USA Today


Amtrak's decision to charge two wheelchair users $25,000 to ride a train in Illinois generated a firestorm of criticism from disability advocacy groups and lawmakers.

Though Amtrak reversed that decision and changed its policy for accommodating wheelchair users, the railroad has been slow to make progress on improving the accessibility of its stations and trains.

It's been 30 years since Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act. Amtrak was given until 2010 to comply with the law.

A decade later, most of the network's roughly 500 stations don't meet the law's requirements. A fleet of about 500 passenger cars, the oldest dating to 1975, also lack full accessibility.

Earlier this month, Amtrak told two wheelchair users that they'd have to pay $25,000 to ride from Chicago to Bloomington, Illinois, a trip that would usually cost $16.

Amtrak President and CEO Richard Anderson met on Tuesday with Sens. Tammy Duckworth and Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, to discuss the incident and the railroad's plan to improve its accessibility.

A 2011 report from Amtrak's Office of Inspector General found that 48 of the stations used by the railroad met the requirements set by the Americans with Disabilities Act, while 434 did not.

A serious challenge

Ken Shiotani, senior staff attorney for the National Disability Rights Network, said just getting into the station or on the train can pose a serious challenge to wheelchair users.

"When you arrive at the station, can you move toward the station in an accessible way?" he asked. "Can you enter the station? Once you’re in the station, is there an accessible restroom? A low counter so a wheelchair user can roll up? Can you get to the platform?"

Shiotani's group has been pushing Amtrak for years to improve train and station accessibility. Part of the problem, he said, is that most Amtrak trains outside the Northeast operate on tracks owned by freight railroads. Though Amtrak owns some of the stations, most are owned by the host railroads or the states.

Many Amtrak stations, particularly in rural areas, are little more than bus shelters.

Most station platforms are not level with the train doors, meaning wheelchair users need lifts to board the train. It would be costly to build level platforms at hundreds of stations, Shiotani said, and the freight railroads that own the tracks don't like them because they can get in the way of freight trains with wide loads.

"Level boarding is not uniformly required," he said. "We wish it would be."

The difficulties for wheelchair users actually begin in the station parking lot, Shiotani said. Not all stations have accessible spaces or ramps and sidewalks that allow wheelchair users to get from the parking lot to the station.

Once at the station door, wheelchair users face steps and other obstacles common in facilities that were built more than 100 years ago. Restrooms aren't always accessible, and neither are ticket counters.

On the train, there is typically only space for one wheelchair per car. Making space for other wheelchair users often requires removing seats, which Amtrak initially cited as justification for the $25,000 fee. Onboard restrooms are not designed so a wheelchair user can turn around as they are on more modern cars operated by Amtrak and commuter railroads.

Improvements coming

Though the core of Amtrak's passenger car fleet was partially retrofitted to comply with the law, the bulk of the single-level Amfleet cars were manufactured long before the federal disability law.

The the ultimate solution will be to replace the aging cars. In the next several years, Amtrak will spend billions of dollars on new trains that will be fully compliant with federal law.

Siemens is currently building a fleet of 137 such cars for service on Amtrak routes in California and the Midwest. The new cars, under construction in California, mimic the ones Siemens built for Florida's Brightline train from Fort Lauderdale to Miami. According to Amtrak, the first of them will be ready for service later this year. 

"They’re vastly better than the current fleet," Shiotani said.

Meanwhile, Amtrak continues to bring more of its station facilities into compliance with the law.

In 2018, the railroad spent $12.8 million on improvements to 25 stations in 16 states, and another $51 million on 25 stations in 18 states last year.

"The system is better now that it was years ago," Shiotani said. "They have improved somewhat."

By:  Curtis Tate