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January 21, 2020

Stung By Criticism And Rebuked By Sen. Duckworth, Amtrak On Wednesday Will Carry Wheelchair Group

Jim Mathews / President & CEO

Now we can add another word to the colorful vocabulary of rail advocacy and passenger-rail foibles: Backtraking.

Amtrak was forced this past weekend to reconsider its position that a group of five wheelchair-using passengers needed to pay the railroad $25,000 to cover the cost of modifying coaches for a $16 trip from Chicago to Bloomington. The coaches only have one wheelchair spot apiece, and the train -- the Lincoln Service -- generally only operates with three coaches. Amtrak told the group they should split themselves among different trains (and decide which of them would arrive at their conference late or incur the cost of a hotel stay to be there on time), or pay the $25,000 bill to remove some seats to make more room.

Once National Public Radio reported the story of the Access Living group's fraught attempt to travel to Bloomington on business, criticism mounted that Amtrak's interaction with these wheelchair-using passengers was, at best, tone-deaf and at worst a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Although there are legal arguments to suggest that Amtrak might have had some room to contest whether the modification was a "reasonable" accomodation, the fact remains that Amtrak had carried this group's members in the past for a modest surcharge.

Moreover, as I told Amtrak executives Friday night and over the weekend, as a taxpayer-supported public agency, Amtrak has a special obligation to do what it can to serve the disabled community. Compared with airline travel, trains are much more suited for wheelchairs, especially large, powered units. And Amtrak has a particularly large share of ridership among those with special travel needs.

In the end, however, it took Illinois Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D) -- a combat-wounded Army veteran who relies on a wheelchair -- speaking up for her constituents to bring Amtrak around. She called Amtrak's position on the issue "outrageous," and expressed "disappointment" that Amtrak hasn't yet publicly apologized for the way it handled Access Living. Shortly thereafter, Amtrak worked out a deal with Access Living to take everyone on the same train, if not the same coach.

As I said Friday night when the story broke, Amtrak's drive to recover 100 percent of the costs to carry these passengers stems from its misguided belief that it must turn a profit. The railroad's leadership no longer claims that it is a legal requirement, but nonetheless pushes on with its drive to cut costs and become a self-sustaining railroad. Management believes that only by reaching break-even or a modest profit will it earn the credibility it needs to secure investment capital from the U.S. Congress to expand routes, add service and buy new rolling stock.

We don't think that's true, and the evidence is on our side. Based on our extensive conversations with members of Congress and their staffs, they recognize the need for a national passenger rail network that's modern, efficient and effective. These members have voted to increase Amtrak appropriations steadily for the past few appropriations cycles, and did so because there are public-policy benefits to buying America more and better trains. Meanwhile, Amtrak repeatedly finds ways to turn friends into enemies on Capitol Hill, with Sen. Duckworth being only the latest.

Wheelchair users are already an outsized part of the rail-traveling public. And Amtrak has a public-transportation mission to bring connectivity to places and people that private industry cannot profitably afford to serve. If this is as regular an occurrence as it seems to be with the Chicago group, then Amtrak needs to find money -- or ask Congress to find it -- to modify coaches with more wheelchair accommodation or maybe more flexible seating so that those passengers can be accommodated when necessary. In the interim, Amtrak could have arrived at today's solution on Friday, but without the drama and the black eye.