Traveling on Amtrak with a disability

Travel is often tricky when you have a disability. Maybe you can’t lift your suitcase into the overhead bin on an airplane or you need to make frequent stops on a car trip. Whatever the issue, there are a lot of unknowns. So I thought I would tell you about my experiences on Amtrak recently. Obviously these are only my own experiences, and I’m sure it will be different for everyone. Still, I learned a lot.

I mentioned in last week’s post that I recently took my first week-long trip since I got really sick about 8 years ago. That was a big deal! So as you can imagine, I was very nervous. I am thrilled to say that it went very well, and you can (and should!) read all about it. The first thing I did was get on a train to Philadelphia, and I’m happy to say that despite my nerves, that went very well, too. So here’s my experience, mostly good, with a few bumps.

2018-12-15 Leaving NY

My view as I left New York

The first thing that happened, of course, is that I made reservations. I spent a while considering my options. I didn’t have a lot of flexibility on the dates. I looked at all of the trains. Some were high speed and some weren’t. Some business class tickets were almost as cheap as coach tickets. But timing was important. I didn’t want to go too early, since I knew I would need a lot of time to get ready without stressing out too much, and I didn’t want to arrive too late. I noticed in poking around on the web site that I could enter that I had a disability and I would get a reduced price fare! I was definitely taking price into account, so that made a difference. Some fares had huge discounts and some weren’t discounted at all if they were already really cheap tickets. For example, my trip from Philadelphia to New York was $39 without a discount – I wasn’t about to complain about that! You can get info on the discounts here. There’s a list of documentation to prove you are disabled, but I was never asked for anything. I’m guessing that varies. Finally I chose my tickets and tried to book online, but had trouble. So I picked up the phone.

I was able to tell the agent on the phone exactly which tickets I wanted. And when I booked, I was clear that I needed a wheelchair at each station. She asked if I wanted accessible seating with extra leg room. I asked about the price and she said there was no extra charge. Wow! I hadn’t been expecting that. So I said yes, and I’m glad I did. But more on that later.

We made a reservation (which didn’t have to be paid for a few days) and I went on my merry way. Except I was having trouble figuring out how to get to the station in Boston. The last time I traveled by train I lived closer to the city. I posted on Facebook and asked friends how they suggested I get from the suburbs to the train station. Someone suggested that I leave from a different station. I would have to pay for parking, but since my plan had been to leave my car in a friend’s driveway and then take a cab or a Lyft into the city, the cost would be the same. It was perfect!

I called Amtrak to change the tickets. I hadn’t paid yet. The person on the phone pointed out that I had accessible seating on one leg of my trip, but not the other two (I was going Boston –> Philadelphia, Philly –> New York, and NY –> Boston.) The first person had screwed up and I wouldn’t have known until I got on the trains. In fairness, the confirmation had said it clearly, but I didn’t read it closely enough. Lesson learned! The person on the phone cancelled my old tickets in order to book new ones in accessible seats. Once those tickets were cancelled, the new ones popped up at that day’s prices – and ended up costing me $100 extra! I was pissed, because they hadn’t told me. She assured me that when a new ticket opened up at the lower price, I would get it. I was still pissed. I told her that shouldn’t have happened. I was taking the same trains at the same times as before. The accessible seating mistake was the agent’s fault, not mine. She insisted she couldn’t do anything, but that she would get me a lower price. What could I do? I booked another reservation. In the end, she was right. 2 days later I got an email saying I had tickets at the original price. I had worried for nothing. If that hadn’t worked out I would have made a bigger stink about it, because really, it wasn’t my fault they hadn’t given me accessible seating in the first place. Anyway, I paid and then got ready for my trip.

The suburban station I left from was tiny. I got a disabled parking space in the garage (I have a placard) and schlepped my stuff inside. Here’s where I made my first mistake. I went to the agent and got my tickets. He asked if I really needed a wheelchair, since it was a small station. That was an inappropriate question that he should never have asked! And I made the mistake of saying I was fine. The station was tiny and I got to the seating area just fine. But getting my stuff up the ramp to the train platform later, though not far, was too much. I should have asked for luggage assistance, but I didn’t know that was a thing. I asked how I would find accessible seating. He assured me that the conductor would be looking for me and would help me. That part went well. The conductor carried my suitcase onto the train like it weighed nothing and found me an empty accessible seat. The seat next to me was empty, which was nice.

Later, another conductor came by to check tickets. He asked if I really needed the accessible seating and I said yes, and told him I would need a wheelchair in Philly. He didn’t blink. He didn’t ask for proof. He simply told me he wouldn’t be on the train there, but would leave a clear note above my seat (where they place the tickets) for the next conductor, and the wheelchair would be waiting for me.

I read and ate and looked out the window and read some more as the miles passed. At one point an older couple got on the train. I heard the conductor explaining there were no accessible seats remaining on this train and next time they should reserve one. I felt bad, even though I had no reason to. They sat behind me.

More miles passed, and a family came up to me, a man and a woman holding a baby and pushing a stroller. They asked if they could have my seats so they would have room for the stroller. I started to say no, feeling horribly guilty (again, I shouldn’t have! And yet I did. Go figure.) Then the conductor (the same one who checked my ticket) came over and told them that I had reserved the accessible seating and they needed to leave the stroller in the luggage area up front and go find other seats. I was relieved and also impressed. I was also glad he happened to be in my car at the time. Later, he stopped by my seat to ask if I was doing ok, then said, “Can you believe some people? I can’t believe they would ask you to move out of accessible seating!” I appreciated his support and helpfulness. He had the perfect attitude. He was right! In their defense, the seats weren’t clearly labeled as been accessible seating. And of course, I don’t look disabled. Still.

Many times during the trip I brought my suitcase from that big empty area in front of me (big enough for a wheelchair) and put it a bit in front of my seat and propped up my legs on it. That made a huge difference for my knees and hips. Otherwise, I don’t know how I would have managed. Thank goodness I had the accessible seat! I also made sure to get up several time to walk a bit – that’s much easier on a train than on a plane, though there’s still swaying. I leaned against the luggage storage above the seats as I stretched, bringing my legs into the big open wheelchair space. It helped a lot, I think.

In New York we had a 15 minute scheduled wait. I walked around a bit on the train. The conductor told the couple behind me to wait, that he would get the wheelchair that hadn’t arrived yet. He assured them the train wouldn’t leave until he gave the word, and he wouldn’t do that until they had the wheelchair. I chatted with them while they waited and we had a nice time. The wheelchair came and they left. We were getting close!

Somewhere between NY and Philly I got tired and wasn’t feeling as well. At Philly, the conductor told me to wait in my seat for the wheelchair. It was only a minute before the wheelchair arrived. He helped me with my luggage. The red cap worker pushed the wheelchair with one hand and pulled my suitcase with the other. I told him I needed a cab so he brought me right to the cab area, to the ramp in the curb. He had the guy directing cabs send one up to the ramp. He put my suitcase in the trunk and asked if I needed help getting into the seat. I was VERY impressed.

The first leg went smoothly! What a relief!

Several days later it was time to go home. I found a red cap at the train station in Philly and told him I would need a wheelchair. They were all being used, but he assured me he would find one and would come get me when it was time. I was very early, so I read a book. But as the time came for my train, I got nervous. I got up and looked for the red cap, saying my train would leave in 5 minutes. And there were no wheelchairs. He assured me were fine. He pointed to a long line of people and said they were waiting for my same train, that it hadn’t arrived yet. Ok. I relaxed. But a minute later he was there with a wheelchair and he brought me and my luggage down to the platform.

This time there was someone next to me on the train, but I had accessible seating. It was only and hour and a half so I felt the seat wasn’t necessary, but I booked it to keep all of the tickets the same. And then part way through the trip my knee started to lock up and I became very grateful for the extra leg room! I propped my leg on my suitcase again and it made a huge difference! Another lesson learned – even for a shorter trip, I need that space.

And once again, the conductors and red caps handled my suitcase and assured me I would have a wheelchair in NY. Great!

Sure enough, in New York the wheelchair was waiting when we arrived. I told him I needed the subway and he not only brought me to the area, but pushed me to the ticket area so I could buy a ticket, and asked the person at the turnstiles where the elevator was. He made sure I had everything I needed, since he wasn’t allowed through the turnstiles. The elevator was right there, so I got down the platform easily. Again, everyone was friendly and helpful.

A couple days later, it was time to head home. This was the one part that didn’t go well. First, I had to walk through Penn Station to get to the Amtrak area. The station in the Boston suburbs is tiny. The station in Philly is big, but the Amtrak area is near the entrance. Penn Station is huge. I followed signs and didn’t get lost, but it was a long walk and I was in a lot of pain when I got there. I showed my ticket to get into the Amtrak waiting area and immediately found 2 empty seats, dropped my things in one, and plopped into the other. I had an hour before my train. I rested and ate part of my lunch. Then I finally went to the red caps and asked about getting a wheelchair. They told me they would find me. I went back to my seat and ate more and read my book.

A bit before my train, a red cap came over and checked in. He told me he just wanted to make sure he knew where I was sitting. That was reassuring. A few minutes later he came back with the wheelchair and a dolly carrying another suitcase. He added my suitcase. He was walking fast to the elevator with another passenger behind him. He asked if he was walking too fast. She said something about a problem with her foot making it hard to walk. He slowed down a bit.

We got to the elevator. People got off and the doors started to close. He opened them and got our luggage on, then came back to put on my wheelchair but the doors closed first! He swore and ran down the stairs, leaving the other passenger and me feeling bewildered. Another red cap walking by commented that he could have pulled the red emergency button to keep the doors open. When the doors opened again the elevator was…. empty! I expected to see the red cap with our luggage, but it was totally empty! The other passenger and I looked at each other and didn’t know what to do. The red cap came running back up the stairs and was upset to see the elevator closed. He berated the other passenger for not holding it open, while I asked about our luggage and said he’d taken it off the elevator and left it on the platform. Yikes! Now I didn’t know if our luggage was safe, and he had the nerve to get mad at this poor woman, even though he was the one to screw up. Why didn’t he just come back up with the elevator? Worst of all, he was muttering that now we might miss the train. WHAT!?!?

When the elevator came, this time he pulled the red emergency button. When we got down the platform he retrieved our luggage and took off practically at a run to get us on the train before it left. I was ok in the wheelchair, but I worried about the poor woman who was having trouble walking. She needed to get to the back of the train for the quiet car. The red cap put me and my luggage in the first car, then ran off. I only hope he put that poor woman in the wheelchair to get her to the back of the train!

That was a horrible experience, which is a shame, because everything else had gone really well. The train ride home was easy. I had the seat next to me empty again, and in fact most of the car was empty on a Saturday afternoon. I stretched and walked around as needed, and propped up my legs when I needed to. The conductor knew I needed a wheelchair, but I told him I might not, and I would know as we got closer. He checked in as we got closer to home and I told him I didn’t need a wheelchair, just help with my luggage. It was that tiny station again, and I knew I needed to stretch my legs after the trip and before my drive home, so I thought it would be a good idea to walk a little bit. The red cap was waiting for me at the station. He loaded my bags onto a luggage cart and we headed inside. I asked where I would pay for my parking and he said either at the nearby desk or when I left the garage. I asked if he minded waiting while I paid at the desk and he said not at all. We had a pleasant chat as we walked to my car. He even put my suitcase into the trunk, which I hadn’t expected!

As I drove home, I thought about how easy my return had been. In fact, the train travel in general had gone well. Except for that horrible time in New York’s Penn Station on the way home, everything with Amtrak had been fantastic. I can’t believe they give discounts for disabled passengers, free accessible seats (as long as they aren’t all booked,) and help with luggage whether or not someone needs a wheelchair. They might offer other services as well, but these were the only ones I needed.

So that’s my experience. Obviously, your mileage may vary, but I hope your travels go as well as mine did. In fact, they went well enough that I hope to take the train to New York again in a few months!

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