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Independent Living News & Policy from the National Council on Independent Living

Is Amtrak Really an Option for People with Disabilities?

NCIL member leads 2013 march to the capitol carrying access flagTransportation System Proves Unable to Accommodate

Ashton Rosin

A new report (PDF) published this month by the National Disability Rights Network (NDRN) has revealed major accessibility barriers in Amtrak stations across the country, preventing many people with disabilities from using this important form of transportation.

In collaboration with the Rochester Center for Independent Living, NDRN investigated 94 stations in 25 states and the District of Columbia, asserting that there are accessibility problems in 89 of these stations, despite two-decade old ADA regulations. Union Station, one of the most widely used stations, also had accessibility issues.

Beyond inadequate ramps and a lack of elevator options, some of these accessibility issues in stations include narrow restrooms that cannot accommodate wheelchairs, ticket counters that are too high for people in wheelchairs, and platforms that are not level with trains. Stations that have one or more of these issues make it extremely difficult for people with disabilities to navigate. Amtrak’s structural barriers can deter a person with a disability from using their services because it can be almost impossible to maneuver the station. Therefore, Amtrak is not an option for many people with disabilities. Depending on where one lives, the inability to use Amtrak may make it extremely difficult for a person with a disability to get to work or school, fundamental needs for any citizen. 

“Our reviews show that Amtrak’s negligence goes beyond simply ignoring the Americans with Disabilities Act, but demonstrates a deliberate disregard for passengers with disabilities,” said Curt Decker, executive director of NDRN. “If you are a person with a disability who wishes to travel on Amtrak, the message is pretty clear: you are not welcome here.”

Although some of these issues can be fixed quickly, more complex problems are expensive and require extensive attention to meet the accessibility needs of people with disabilities. Accessibility issues prove to be increasingly problematic as the disability community represents a significant portion of the ridership. The proportion of passengers with disabilities grew by 20 percent in 2013.

Amtrak only owns a small portion of the almost 500 stations, making it difficult for the agency to ensure uniform ADA compliance across the country. However, Congress recognized this fact upon the passing of the ADA and gave Amtrak 20 years to come into ADA compliance. This plan would allow joint owners of stations, who are also responsible to meet ADA regulations, the opportunity to share costs. However, Amtrak did not meet this 2010 deadline. Furthermore, Congress gave Amtrak funds directed at accessibility improvements when recognizing that ADA compliance would not be possible by 2010, yet we still see a failure to make necessary accommodations for people with disabilities.

Highlighting Amtrak’s accessibility issues brings to light questions about accessibility in other forms of public transportation. Issues with broken elevators in Metro stops and New York’s subway system prove to be infrastructural barriers that make it insurmountable for people with disabilities to use these types of transportation, again limiting the disability community’s options for commuting around a city.

NDRN has committed to advocating for improved Amtrak accessibility and is hoping to utilize this report to encourage Congress and the Department of Justice to put this issue on their agendas to produce concrete commitments to improved Amtrak accessibility. This sort of pressure is intended to produce results that fix the extensive problems associated with Amtrak’s inability to serve people with disabilities.


  1. Donald Price says

    Being a person with a disability and an executive director of a center for independent living in Virginia, I understand the issues with accessibility and barriers throughout our country. As the article points out the ADA is 25 years old and accessibility is still a barrier to our daily lives. I use the Amtrak train out of Union Station to go to Richmond and Norfolk, Virginia. I have found this station to be as accessible to me as it is to everyone else. I do not know who owns Union Station but I know the Metro and other trains use it. The trains that I have ridden on have accessible areas (not alway where I would like) and accessible bathrooms. Also, when I had knee surgery they were accommodating on assisting me to the station. On the other hand, there are issues with track crossings to get to trains and these can be dangerous for all. I think Amtrak needs to get compliant, but so do other transportation sources, towns and cities, and business establishments. The ADA is not a new law but it has been ignored by more than Amtrak.

    • Michael Robinson - Paulina Laino says

      Yes I am here right now on this day from Los Angeles to Philadelphia and me and my spouse are both disabled. We paid for disability seating . From Los Angeles to Chicago services were great, but when we arrived to Chicago the ramps were so narrow even people without disabilities had to walk in a straight line to get to transferring trains. Those who had mobility problems were walking or had to wait for transportation that was not rendered. Instead we were directed to upper coach seating in which my spouse had a hip replacement at the age 16 and a blood filter in the same leg a year and a half before. As a result of this we had to climb to narrow stair ways and my wife walks with a cane and a limp and is off balance because of this. Going to the bathroom was very uncomfortable for her using her cane and plus she is Epileptic. Well on our way out of the bathroom there’s metal floors in which she lost her footing because of a wet floor. I assume customers are not drying there hands in which they drop water on to the metal floors. So right now she has a twisted ankle . They asked if ambulance was needed and we told them we just want to get to our destination f traveling from Los Angeles. My opinion is that if employees were more compliant with services this incident would have never happened. When we arrive in Philadelphia Pa we will be putting in a complaint about the conductor who was on shift who’s services were not up to standards before we boarded train 30 . I have his employee # and his name that I will be submitting once we reach our destination. I expect a 1/2 refund of which she paid and I hope her ankle does not cause her more problems. This a total set back for her and I’m upset about the whole matter coming into Union Station in Chicago.

  2. I am 63 years old and suffer from severe, disabling rheumatoid disease. I rarely travel anymore but was looking forward to traveling on Amtrak. On 6/19/15, I purchased a reserved Lower Level coach seat for travel on 7/14/15 between Oceanside, California to Shelby, Montana. There was an overnight delay in PDX Union Station on 7/15/15 as a result of an issue with the Empire Builder Train 28. The next day I returned to Portland Union Station to board Train 28 to Shelby, MT to my surprise, the Lower Level seat I purchased was not honored. I learned that Dave, Amtrak’s agent had switched me to an upper level seat! This Amtrak employee does NOT TREAT DISABLED SENIORS with dignity or respect. When I refused to accept an upper level seat as it is troublesome for me to climb stairs due my disability, I was told by Dave to either suck it up or get a refund. He made my life HELL! I really wanted to continue my trip but Dave was adamant and forceful about not providing me with my prepaid Lower Level seat on Train 28 instead Dave gave me a $90 refund and said he would not sell me a ticket on ANY Amtrak trains. This resulted in my being stranded in the Portland Amtrak station. I was crying, shaking and numb with pain. It took me awhile to gain my bearings. I called a friend in California who suggested I try to buy a ticket home from a different Amtrak agent. I attempted to buy an Amtrak ticket in Portland, OR to Oceanside, CA via ticket agent Dan who started checking prices when Dave told his coworker Dan not to sell me a new ticket home to California. My friend MaryEllen heard this via my mobile phone’s speaker I was fearful and kept her on the phone during my attempt to purchase the ticket. I receive Social Security Disability and have a very limited budget. I asked Dave repeatedly to reissue my original ticket but he refused claiming that I could not be allowed to board any Amtrak trains because I might fall down their stairs. The fact of the matter is when I traveled from Oceanside, CA to Portland, OR on the Lower Level of Amtrak’s train I had NO issues as I was provided with a Lower Level seat! I really do not understand Amtrak’s employee Dave’s not honoring my reserved Lower Level seat purchase. Many people witnessed this incident and I have proof of my purchase. My final destination was Calgary, Alberta, Canada, as a result of Amtrak’s denial of service, I am now out the $220 airfare I purchased to travel on 7/29 to return home from Calgary. Furthermore, I incurred an additional $154 bus ticket expense for a Greyhound ticket home from Portland. I barely had enough money for that bus ticket. I was hungry, scared and alone until 11:30 pm in PDX, Greyhound station. Why does Amtrak permit their employees to bully disabled customers? Why does a disabled passenger have to beg and plead for what they paid for? Then when a disabled person insists on their accommodation Amtrak blacklisted me from ANY train travel! How can Amtrak get away with treating disabled customers like second-class citizens? To date, NO ONE from Amtrak has contacted me to resolve this issue. No apology, no compensation for my unexpected financial losses caused by Amtrak’s blatant, malicious denial of service based on my disability that requires me to sit on the Lower Level of their trains!
    I also witnessed the following: a woman dressed in a white blouse described as the Conductor of Train 28 made a general announcement stating that anyone, including disabled persons, traveling beyond Shelby, MT would be subjected to sitting on the train from 24 to 48 hours and that there were no other options except either take it or leave it. Next, on the Coastline California Train 14 ride from Los Angeles to Portland, the handicapped bathroom entrance in my boxcar was obstructed by an enormous box which was being used as a trash vessel. I was assigned seat 84 on the Lower Level of Train 14 and reported it to Javier, Amtrak’s employee working our section of the train. I observed that the trash vessel was then placed in the hallway again creating another obstruction to the other bathrooms in that corridor. For these reasons, I respectfully request that the issue of Amtrak’s blatant disregard for the civil rights of disabled persons be legally reviewed.

    • Michael Robinson - Paulina Laino says

      We to experienced very similar situations in fact the conductor was rude to me in the beginning when i asked him where is train 30 and he asked me what city I told him Philadelphia PA he then threatens me and says you got and attitude you won’t be boarding this train I was upset and it took me a cool minute to ca down and I’m disabled also and suffer from Cronic Skirzophrenia if it had not been for taking harsh treatment and disrespect it possibly could have sent me into a phycotic episode . Judging from other stories I will be seeking a lawyer on this matter so this kind of incident does not happens Evette again.

  3. Michael Robinson - Paulina Laino says

    I might add to the situation is that my spouse is legally blind and awaiting catarack surgery. Michael Robinson 7602208016 your comments are welcomed. Thank you.

  4. Cardinal Robbins says

    If you’re disabled, DO NOT ride Amtrak. I did an 18-hour trip on Amtrak with two family members who are also disabled. We three have mobility issues. It was very difficult to get tickets on the lower level despite booking early, then we were moved from seat to seat on that level like cattle. The ADA lower level on the Southwest Chief is a tiny little area in one car, but at least it’s near the ADA bathroom.

    Headed East, we had a very nice attendant who took good care of us, even though we’d been moved to seats with NO tray table, NO ability to recline, NO foot rest. It made having dinner a nightmare. The propaganda you read on the Amtrak site is nothing but LIES.

    On the return trip, the attendant could not have cared less about ANY of us in the ADA section. I got fed up, called him out on his laziness and bad attitude and let him know the service was horrible — and I was not about to tolerate it. He had left us all without taking dinner reservations until it was so late (10 pm) that the kitchen was out of almost everything. I made it clear that if I didn’t have something vegetarian or with chicken, heads would roll at that point because he DIDN’T DO HIS JOB when he was supposed to.

    He snapped to at that point because he didn’t want me on his backside the entire trip. I don’t usually get strident and I tip VERY well, but this guy made it clear he wasn’t interested in ADA passengers from the start. THAT made me angry. We were almost entirely IGNORED the entire trip. Breakfast reservations were taken at 4:00 AM and he didn’t even bother to come to our car. It was absolutely ridiculous.

    The train was filthy, the bathrooms were just RANK with very few supplies along the 18 hour trip. Glad I brought some toilet paper for personal use, and that I brought water along for my family and myself.

    I had looked forward to a vacation on Amtrak for MONTHS, but after that trip I will NEVER do any kind of long trip on Amtrak EVER AGAIN. We were even supervised in cleaning our area of the train car, while the attendant did next to nothing. Yes, lazy “Shaun,” you just stood around. You have GOT to be KIDDING me! Doesn’t the price of the ticket include the employees doing THEIR job?

    Amtrak SUCKS, especially if you’re disabled in any way. Next trip, I’m driving — NO MORE Amtrak.

  5. I travel on Amtrak train 189 most Sundays and the accessible seats never have the required ‘reserved ‘ sign above them, so people sit in them and the conductor accepts their tickets which are not accessible seating tickets. When I get on board I do not see a conductor for 30 minutes and I have to kick the people out of the seats. I’ve called customer service 3 times in the past several mounthe about this, and have case numbers. But nothing is getting done to resolve the issue. How hard is it to keep the reserved signs up over the accessible seating?!

    • I had the same problem. I saw a blind man have to struggle to climb the stairs because the conductor told a young healthy couple to sit in the “handicapped” seating. Grrr. I’d like to know what can be done.


    I use a power wheelchair. I weigh about 185. My chair and I weigh 648 pounds.

    Amtrak has a 600 pound limit for their wheelchair lift and has told me I cannot ride Amtrak unless I go up the lift without my wheelchair and get on my chair after it arrives.

    This is dangerous for me since I can fall easily due to weakened muscles in my legs and arms.

    Very disappointing that Amtrak is not see a consent decree to change their accessibility practices yet has not made those changes to wheelchair lifts.

  7. Harriet Hodges says

    I’m thinking of taking a long Amtrak trip with my wheelchair-bound sister. I myself have traveled all over the country for years by train without any complaints (except, of course, to suffer penny-pinching in every category because our government denies them funds). Never have I experienced a rude employee–only tired ones. Of course the food is not nearly as good as it was 40 years ago. I would be glad to hear from passengers who would warn against routes where they experienced trouble. Needless to say, as a very experienced client I expect delays and a certain amount of shabbiness. But I would definitely like to avoid stations and/or routes where I (80, but strong) would almost certainly face difficulties.

  8. The Public says

    Just Read “cathy says”. Is it a regular thing that when these Amtrak employees encounter an issue, they become rude, suddenly lack problem solving or customer service skills? Even their hands seem to magically become tied. Oh, that is except to offer a refund and hand out 1-800 cards? If bad days, pay and conditions are such an issue how is Amtrak able to keep employees at all let alone maintain on a National Scale? And regardless, that is not an excuse “not to do” one’s job. Quit then and get something better if that’s the problem. In my parents time, the customer was ALWAYS right in requesting service for what they have PAID for. Are they doing me a favor taking my money? They spare no effort in making it “seem” that way. And don’t give me the “UNION” thing. A former member of the carpenters union, and we do not treat people in this manner and We still deal with the public. Just because you work for Amtrack does not mean you are above or outside the public and if it is so off putting dealing with the public, go train for another sector. Either way service workers ARE and will STILL be of the public themselves, Amtrack. Start treating your customers as you would like to be treated yourselves. Not just a FEW or a handful of you but ALL. Like perhaps in your training. To problem solve. Then maybe we will ALL have a better experience overall. I have been treated better on a MEGABUS.

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