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January 17, 2020

Amtrak Claims It Costs $25,000 To Take Five Wheelchair Riders On A Single Trip Between Chicago And Bloomington

by Jim Mathews / President & CEO

[Note: Amtrak reversed itself under pressure from the public, from us here at Rail Passengers and, most directly, from Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.). You can read more about the reversal here.]

This evening I saw a report on National Public Radio's website highlighting the efforts of a group of disability advocates to travel on Amtrak using their wheelchairs. There aren't a lot of wheelchair-friendly spaces on Amtrak's increasingly elderly coach fleet, but it's certainly more wheelchair-friendly than a bus. In the past, this particular group -- Chicago-based Access Living -- generally worked it out with Amtrak when they needed to travel with more than one or two folks. On prior trips the railroad went so far as to remove a seat or two to fit an extra wheelchair. Not easy, but not impossible. And not free, either. Amtrak charged a small surcharge and the group paid. Seats go in and out. It's not unheard of.

But not this time. Unless, of course, the group ponied up $25,000.

No, that's not a typo.

"In previous years, the removal of seats from the coach cars incurred fees that Amtrak absorbed," Amtrak group sales told Access Living. "We understand and appreciate your loyalty with Amtrak. Going forward, we cannot continue to absorb these fees. These polices have changed nationwide as of 2019."

I've written here before that as an Association we think it's good for Amtrak to work hard to spend its taxpayer-appropriated dollars wisely. But I've also written about Amtrak's seemingly single-minded and misguided desire to make the railroad break even or a turn a profit, even when by law it has no requirement to do so. This feels like an extension of this blinkered idea, hitting disabled travelers who have little in the way of a practical choice with a fee intended to recover the fully allocated overhead of a public service.

Now, before I'm pilloried in the Comments section below, I recognize that there IS a cost involved to swap seats. The $16 fare really doesn't cover what's needed to handle a group of five wheelchair-bound travelers on a short-haul train with only three coaches. And yes there are nuances and details and it's not as simple as all that. Got it.

But there's a long way to go between $16 for each of five passengers and $25,000. And what Amtrak should have done was to work a little harder to work something out. Maybe a surcharge of a couple of hundred dollars. But this?

A key part of Amtrak's mission is to provide public transportation to people and places where the private sector can't afford to provide it. Offering to carry five passengers in wheelchairs between Chicago, Ill., and Bloomington, Ill., for $25,000 is a lot like, well...maybe offering to let Amtrak restore service on the Gulf Coast between New Orleans and Jacksonville so long as Amtrak pays CSX $2 billion. Both are equally absurd and designed to accomplish the same thing: sandbag the whole idea.

Lawyers will quibble about how far Amtrak has to go to meet the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) standards, and without a law degree I won't opine on whether there are finer points that put ADA on Amtrak's side in this dispute. I rather doubt it but I'm not a lawyer.

But the response of the group sales agent quoted by NPR really breaks faith with disabled and elderly people whose physical requirements force them to rely in an outsize way on Amtrak's service. It also breaks faith with the taxpayers who gladly support the existence of Amtrak with the confidence of knowing that they're supporting a national asset providing an important social good.

Amtrak, on this one you really blew it. You need to do better.