Train Tickets for Two More Wheelchairs? That’ll Be $25,000, Amtrak Says
The advocacy group for people with disabilities had planned weeks in advance for a two-hour trip outside Chicago, and had worked with Amtrak before.
The group asked for room for five wheelchairs, meaning Amtrak would have to move seats on one car. The train typically costs $16 a ticket, but this time Amtrak asked for something new: $25,000.
Officials at Access Living, the Chicago-based group, were shocked at the charge. They noted that in the past Amtrak had reconfigured its train cars to allow many more passengers at no additional cost. By law, Amtrak must accommodate one wheelchair per car.
But Amtrak told them that it could no longer afford the costs of reconfiguring cars for additional wheelchairs, and that nationwide policy had changed as of 2019. “With removal of seats, it can be quite costly,” a customer service official said in a Jan. 2 email to the group. “Going forward, we cannot continue to absorb these fees.”
About two weeks later, the exchange was in the news, drawing condemnation from advocates and officials like Senator Tammy Duckworth, Democrat of Illinois. Amtrak then apologized and changed course on the trip — if not the policy — and opened talks with Ms. Duckworth.
Adam Ballard, a 38-year-old housing and transportation policy analyst with Access Living, was one of the five passengers with wheelchairs who planned to make the trip to Bloomington-Normal, Ill., on Jan. 22, along with five other colleagues.
“When groups of nondisabled people travel together, they get a discount,” he said. “We were getting the exact opposite.”
After NPR first reported on the price on Friday, Amtrak issued a statement saying it would accommodate the passengers as “they originally requested.” The rail service agreed to receive seven people with wheelchairs for the trip Wednesday, according to Access Living officials.
“We apologize for their inconvenience as we have been working through how to serve their travel needs,” Amtrak said in a statement. “We assured them that as valued customers we will accommodate all passengers who use wheelchairs aboard the same Amtrak trains they originally requested between Chicago and Bloomington-Normal, Ill.”
Amtrak officials said they had also contacted Senator Duckworth to schedule a meeting with “Amtrak senior leadership as part of a further review of our policy of fees for situations where special reconfiguration of rail cars is requested.”
Ms. Duckworth, who lost her legs while she was serving as an Army helicopter pilot, called the $25,000 charge “outrageous” in a statement Monday.
“The Americans with Disabilities Act has been the law of the land for 30 years,” she said. “Yet in 2020, Amtrak believes it would be an unreasonable burden to remove architectural barriers that would enable a group with five wheelchair users to travel together.”
She said she wanted to meet with Amtrak’s chief executive, Richard Anderson, to discuss “eliminating Amtrak’s nationwide policy of refusing to absorb any costs associated with reconfiguring a rail car to accommodate a group of wheelchair users.”
Mr. Anderson, the former chief executive of Delta Air Lines, was named in 2017 to oversee Amtrak, which serves tens of thousands of passengers daily but has struggled to become profitable since it was created in 1971.
Marc Magliari, an Amtrak spokesman, said that the policy was meant for any group asking that a train be reconfigured to fit passengers. Groups traveling with musical instruments, sports teams and student organizations have asked for cars to be reconfigured to accommodate them, he said.
“A request for reconfiguration is not coming to us only from groups who are coming with mobility devices,” Mr. Magliari said. “But regardless of the group asking, the policy is being further reviewed.”
Mr. Magliari said he could not explain why it would have cost $25,000 to reconfigure a car for the Access Living group.
In the emails to Access Living, Amtrak officials explained that seats have to be removed in advance from a train car to accommodate a group. The car is out of service until the group travels.
“This results in Amtrak being unable to sell seats for the duration the car is out of service, which is considered in the cost,” one email said.
Mr. Ballard said Amtrak has previously charged “a few hundred dollars” when larger groups traveled with 10 to 15 wheelchairs.
The $25,000 cost seemed unreasonable, he said, comparing it to the price of a new car or the cost of “every ticket on the train.”
The group was traveling for an annual retreat with other agencies that advocate on behalf of people with disabilities. It was the second year in a row that the conference was being held in Bloomington-Normal.
Bridget Hayman, a spokeswoman for Access Living, said the group could not take multiple trains because members would miss part of the event. Amtrak should abandon its new policy permanently, she added.
“This could be a policy that has ripple effects and has disproportionate effects on people who use wheelchairs,” said Ms. Hayman, who also uses a wheelchair. “There is a whole generation of us that have grown up with access to transportation.”
She added, “We travel for work around the country and need to get around like anybody else.”
People with wheelchairs often prefer trains because they allow them to stay in their chairs, Mr. Ballard said. On a plane or a chartered bus, he said, passengers usually have to be moved from chairs and into a seat, which can be dangerous, and it’s not uncommon for wheelchairs to be damaged in storage.
“I’ve personally been dropped by people on the plane,” he said. “I use the train for trips to D.C. even though it’s an overnight trip, because it’s more safe and effective for me.”
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