Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) called reports that Amtrak wanted to charge a group of disabled passengers $25,000 for rail tickets that usually cost $16 apiece “outrageous,” requesting a meeting with the company’s CEO to determine how it could better serve wheelchair users.
“It is outrageous that Amtrak asked a group of passengers with disabilities to pay $25,000 to ride from the City of Chicago to Bloomington, Illinois,” Duckworth, a double amputee who serves on the Senate Transportation Committee, wrote Sunday on Twitter. “It is also disappointing that Amtrak leadership appears to have failed to offer a public apology for its initial mistake.”
NPR reported earlier this week that Adam Ballard, a housing and transportation policy analyst at a disability advocacy group in Chicago, attempted to buy tickets on an Amtrak train between the two cities for a work retreat, a distance of about 135 miles. A group of 10 employees hoped to buy tickets on the route. Five use wheelchairs, but Amtrak said it had room for only three.
The fee to remove seats to fit additional wheelchairs so the group could travel together? $25,000.
The report prompted widespread outrage among disability advocates, particularly after Ballard noted Amtrak had made accommodations for his colleagues before with advanced notice.
“In previous years, the removal of seats from the coach cars incurred fees that Amtrak absorbed,” an Amtrak booking agent wrote Ballard at the time, he told NPR. “We understand and appreciate your loyalty with Amtrak. Going forward, we cannot continue to absorb these fees. These policies have changed nationwide as of 2019.”
Amtrak later told NPR it would contact Ballard’s employer to recommend the group book tickets on two separate trains that service the same route so the company wouldn’t have to undertake “any reconfiguration.”
Duckworth, an Army veteran who lost both legs in Iraq, called the shift in policy “disappointing,” saying she hoped to meet with Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson in the coming weeks “to discuss eliminating Amtrak’s nationwide policy of refusing to absorb any costs associated with reconfiguring a railcar to accommodate a group of wheelchair users.”
“The Americans with Disabilities Act has been the law of the land for 30 years,” Duckworth said. “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 ADA prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities, including on transportation. It requires companies such as Amtrak to make “reasonable accommodations” to service disabled people but has a carve-out if in doing so a company would suffer an “undue burden.”