clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Amtrak reverses course on $25,000 tab to accommodate Access Living advocates on downstate trip

Amtrak usually accommodates members from Access Living for around $1,000, removing seats to make room for people with wheelchairs. But the group was hit with a much bigger estimate this year: more than $25,000.

Access Living community organizer Candace Coleman boards an Amtrak train in 2019.
Access Living community organizer Candace Coleman boards an Amtrak train in 2019.
Provided by Access Living

Access Living advocates say that Amtrak will no longer charge the group a $25,000 fee to accommodate several wheelchair users as they travel downstate this week for a conference.

Amtrak first told the advocates that under a new policy, it would cost more than $25,000 to remove seats from its train cars so that it could accommodate the group’s additional wheelchair users. This quote came as a surprise to the advocates, who usually paid anywhere from $800 to $1,000 for the cars to be reconfigured for trips over the last decade.

And that’s about what they were expecting to pay for a planned trip that includes five wheelchair users Wednesday to a conference in Normal — until an Amtrak sales agent stunned them with the mammoth quote.

“We were just flabbergasted, literally floored,” Access Living communications director Bridget Hayman said. “I thought it was a joke. I thought, ‘This has got to be a typo.’ “

But it was no mistake, the sales agent insisted, according to an email exchange with Amtrak provided by Access Living.

Teams from Access Living make a handful of group trips downstate via Amtrak every year, usually to meet with lawmakers in Springfield, according to Access Living advocacy director Amber Smock.

The group typically reaches out to Amtrak about a month in advance to make arrangements for the five to 10 wheelchair users who generally take the trip.

Under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act — co-authored by the late Access Living founder Marca Bristo — each train car is only required to have one wheelchair space. With three cars per train, that means only three people who use wheelchairs can fit on a regular Amtrak train unless reconfigurations are made.

Bridget Hayman, spokeswoman for Access Living, a nonprofit advocacy organization for people with disabilities in Chicago, makes her way through a crowded sidewalk space on the 100 block of North Green Street. July 23, 2019 | Brian Ernst/Sun-Times
Bridget Hayman, spokeswoman for Access Living, a nonprofit advocacy organization for people with disabilities in Chicago, makes her way through a crowded sidewalk space on the 100 block of North Green Street. July 23, 2019 | Brian Ernst/Sun-Times
Brian Ernst/Sun-Times

The agent said Amtrak “had absorbed” the costs of seat removal in previous years, but these “policies have changed nationwide as of 2019,” the sales agent said.

“When we remove seats from a train car to accommodate a group, this needs to be done in advance and the train car then is held aside/out of service until the group travels,” the Amtrak agent wrote in that email exchange. “This results in Amtrak being unable to sell these seats for the duration the car is out of service, which is considered in the cost.”

However, Amtrak reversed course Monday by agreeing to accommodate the wheelchair users if they bought tickets at face-value, telling the advocates they found a way to serve them without having to reconfigure the train car.

In a statement Monday afternoon, an Amtrak spokesman said the transit agency contacted Access Living to “apologize for their inconvenience as we have been working through how to serve their travel needs.

“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.”

The reversal comes after U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth, ranking member of the Senate Subcommittee on Transportation and Security, called the $25,000 tab “outrageous.”

“It is also disappointing that Amtrak leadership appears to have failed to offer a public apology for its initial mistake,” Duckworth said in a statement.

“The Americans with Disabilities Act has been the law of the land for 30 years. 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.”

The Illinois Democrat said she will request a meeting with Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson to discuss the practice of charging groups of wheelchair users to reconfigure railcars. An Amtrak spokesman said the agency has contacted Duckworth’s staff to schedule that meeting.

While it could often be “frustrating” waiting for Amtrak to confirm travel arrangements, the agency previously was “ultimately accommodating,” Smock said. But she called the new travel tab “blatant discrimination, and very, very poor corporate policy.”

And the group says that’s a threat to their mission.

“It is critical to ensure that disability voters can talk with the people making decisions about their lives,” Smock said. “As a nonprofit, we have to conserve our dollars. This will limit our ability to connect grassroots people with disabilities with their elected officials in Springfield, because we will have to spread our people across the limited number of train trips, overnight. The new Amtrak policy is grossly unfair to wheelchair users looking for a safe and economical way to travel as a group.”

Contributing: Jake Wittich