Traveling on an Amtrak train from Chicago to the Bloomington-Normal, Ill., station costs $16 per person each way. And it would cost the same for most of the passengers traveling with the Chicago-based disability-rights advocacy group Access Living.
That’s the soaring ticket price estimate Amtrak sent to Access Living earlier this month for the roughly two-hour train ride, saying that, as part of a new policy, Amtrak would no longer be paying for the costs associated with “reconfiguring” a train to make special accommodations. The problem was Access Living had five people who needed wheelchair accommodations, but there were only three wheelchair-accessible seats on the train. Amtrak said it would cost thousands to add two more, according to emails between Amtrak and Access Living provided to The Washington Post.
“At first, we thought it was a typo,” Bridget Hayman, a spokeswoman for Access Living, told The Post on Monday night.
On Monday, Amtrak apologized to Access Living and walked back the costly estimate for the group, agreeing to make space and accommodate everyone at the regular rate of $16 per person, according to Hayman and a statement from the company sent to The Post. The reversal follows days of public backlash since NPR first reported the story Friday. But Hayman said Amtrak has still not resolved the group’s concerns about the policy. Starting in 2019, the policy appears to require groups who need special accommodations to foot the bill themselves if Amtrak must physically change the train’s seating to suit their needs.
Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), a combat veteran who uses a wheelchair, called the situation “outrageous” on Sunday and demanded Amtrak eliminate this policy.
In a statement to The Post late Monday, Amtrak said the policy is undergoing “further review,” and the company has reached out to Duckworth’s office to schedule a meeting.
“Amtrak officials have contacted Access Living and we apologize for their inconvenience as we have been working through how to serve their travel needs,” the statement said. “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.”
Hayman said Access Living has been using Amtrak for years to travel to advocacy meetings in Bloomington-Normal, like the work retreat on Wednesday, or to Springfield, Ill., to meet with lawmakers. Typically, Access Living gives Amtrak advanced notice of a coming trip if multiple travelers are in wheelchairs so the company can make the appropriate preparations, she said.
This time, an Access Living representative reached out in December, saying five out of 10 travelers were in wheelchairs. The group requested Amtrak add two wheelchair-accessible seats to its train, which only had three wheelchair-friendly seats.
To add just two seats would cost “over $25,000,” an Amtrak agent wrote back to Access Living on Dec. 30. “Would you like for me to proceed with the request?”
“I thought it was a mistake. That’s the price of a car,” Adam Ballard, Access Living’s housing and transportation policy analyst, who is among the attendees in wheelchairs, told NPR on Friday. “How can that be possible?”
So, Access Living wrote back to Amtrak, asking whether perhaps there had been a miscommunication, or perhaps the group was misreading the email.
No, the agent responded on Jan. 2, “This cost is correct.”
“With the removal of seats, it can be quite costly,” she continued. She said Amtrak incurred the costs to change the train’s seating in the past, but, “going forward, we cannot continue to absorb these fees.”
To arrive at the high cost estimate, the Amtrak rep said the train car has to be decommissioned so that seats can be reconfigured. The tickets Amtrak is unable to sell for those seats is part of the $25,000 cost, the agent said.
“We were floored,” Hayman said. “Certainly, if that’s the cost to reconfigure one train, it has a disproportionate impact on people with disabilities. … There’s a whole generation of people in wheelchairs who grew up under the ADA, myself included, and we’ve come to expect that we will have access to public transit.”
Duckworth, who lost both her legs in Iraq, said on Twitter on Sunday that she planned to contact Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson “to prevent future incidents” and to discuss doing away with the policy.
“The Americans With Disabilities Act has been the law of the land for 30 years,” wrote Duckworth, who is also the ranking Democrat on the Senate Commerce Committee’s transportation subcommittee. “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.
As news of Amtrak’s policy spread, Hayman said a second disability-rights group contacted Access Living and said it had planned to take the same train to Bloomington-Normal for the same advocacy meeting. The group had no idea of the policy either, she said.
Amtrak agreed to accommodate the group as well, Hayman said, but it only raised another concern: What if more people in wheelchairs tried to buy tickets for that same train at the station? Would they be turned away?
“That’s what’s so distressing about this,” she said. “In the statement Amtrak released late Friday night they suggested, ‘maybe we can take different trains’ — but then we’d have people missing our conference. It’s inequitable service.”