Amtrak Asks Two People Who Use Wheelchairs To Pay $25,000 For A Ride (NPR 1/17/20)

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Pere Flyer

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https://www.npr.org/2020/01/17/797355136/amtrak-asks-two-people-in-wheelchairs-to-pay-25-000-for-a-ride

Adam Ballard works for a disability service and advocacy center in Chicago called Access Living. He is its housing and transportation policy analyst, and a group from his office is headed to Bloomington next Wednesday for a work retreat.

There are 10 of them, and five — including Ballard — use wheelchairs. Their train has three cars. Each car has one space for a wheelchair. That makes three spaces for five people in wheelchairs. In the past, when Access Living gave advance notice that it was sending a large group, Amtrak took out more seats to fit more wheelchairs. Once, it took out seats in the dining car and charged a few hundred dollars extra.

On Dec. 30, an Amtrak agent for group sales based in Philadelphia wrote: "I received a cost regarding the removal of seats and I've been advised this will be over $25 K. Would you like for me to proceed with the request?"

Someone from the group wrote back: "Am I reading this correctly?"

The answer came back on Jan. 2. "The cost is correct," the agent wrote, citing a new policy for taking out those seats. The agent explained that it's expensive to take out extra seats and that it means taking a car out of service.

"With removal of seats, it can be quite costly," the agent wrote. "In previous years, the removal of seats from the coach cars incurred fees that Amtrak absorbed ... We understand and appreciate your loyalty with Amtrak. Going forward, we cannot continue to absorb these fees. These polices have changed nationwide as of 2019."
 

LookingGlassTie

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I saw this story on a few Amtrak FB pages, and I gotta say that the headline is misleading, IMO. Someone apparently wants to make Amtrak look bad with regard to the disabled. I say this as a disabled person myself (I'm legally blind).

Plus, I assumed that Amtrak passenger cars had two or three spaces for wheelchairs. Whether Amtrak is indeed in violation of the ADA remains to be seen, but the headline to the story is horrible.

$0.02
 

crescent-zephyr

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The headline seems pretty accurate to me. 5 guests in wheelchairs is not an extreme number, the standard city busses that run on Disney property accommodate 2 each.
 

SarahZ

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The headline seems pretty accurate to me. 5 guests in wheelchairs is not an extreme number, the standard city buses that run on Disney property accommodate 2 each.
Except Amtrak didn't ask two wheelchair users to pay $25,000 for a ride. The headline makes it sound like two passengers tried to book a trip and were charged $25,000.

This was a request from a group, which would have required the removal of seats and taking a car out of service.

While the cost may seem egregious, that's another debate. The title itself is misleading clickbait.
 

crescent-zephyr

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Except Amtrak didn't ask two wheelchair users to pay $25,000 for a ride. The headline makes it sound like two passengers tried to book a trip and were charged $25,000.

This was a request from a group, which would have required the removal of seats and taking a car out of service.

While the cost may seem egregious, that's another debate. The title itself is misleading clickbait.
It’s a stretch, but not totally misleading. If 3 passengers in wheelchairs cost $16 each, those 2 passengers being added is $25k for 2 passengers.
 

FrensicPic

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So, prior to 2019, how much did Amtrak "absorb"?
"With removal of seats, it can be quite costly," the agent wrote. "In previous years, the removal of seats from the coach cars incurred fees that Amtrak absorbed ... We understand and appreciate your loyalty with Amtrak. Going forward, we cannot continue to absorb these fees. These polices have changed nationwide as of 2019."
 

basketmaker

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$25k is high no doubt. But consider that the removal of seats which most most likely would require at least two sets in one car to accommodate the 2 chairs if 2 of the other chairs were in the other two cars. Optionally taken out three sets of seats and accommodate the entire group in one car. It most likely require removing or swapping a car in the regular consist. Then at least two maintenance personnel to remove the seats and install whatever hold-down mechanism required. Then that car would have to be switched back to the station and re-coupled to the consist by a locomotive and crew.

Not to mention that depending on the groups itinerary and return date that one modified car would miss 6 revenue paying seats. With a cost of $3.50-$92 per seat/trip. And with 4 round-trips between Chicago and St. Louis per day that could add up to a fair amount. Also, a coordination of when the group was returning so that car is available to them. Doubt seriously that Bloomington, IL has the facilities to do maintenance in between the travel dates. And a re-installation of seats to bring the car back to full capacity and put back into service.

I am not sure of the hourly rate/service fees for each procedure is at Chicago. But considering the personnel/labor and equipment charges I wouldn't think it would be cheap. And add the revenue loss too.

Appears that Amtrak realized the expense of these kind of special requests/needs last September and adjusted policy. Again, I do think $25k is a high even for the procedures I mentioned. With my life partner being mobility impaired and me not far from it I can sympathize with their predicament.

And yes the headline is plain ol' fake news scare tactics/
 
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John Santos

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I heard the story on NPR this afternoon, and if the story was accurate, the headline was in no way misleading. The only thing I can't remember was if the $25,000 was each or the total for the two passengers. (The other three wheelchair passengers were charged the normal $16 one-way fare.)

Suppose it takes two guys with wrenches 5 minutes to unbolt a seat. 10 minutes to walk to the car, 5 minutes to remove, 10 minutes to carry it back to wherever they would store it. Call it 1/2 hour. Repeat in reverse when the train arrives back in Chicago. 2 hours time to remove and replace 2 seats @ $100/hr = $200. Since a wheelchair takes the space of 2 seats, they lose the revenue for 4 passengers. Round trip because the seats will be missing both ways. $16 Chicago to Bloomington (I think that's where they were going) one-way. 8*$16= $128 (for the two of them.) They should have been charged no more than $328 each way, and this is way overcharging.

Oops, maybe it only costs $100 to remove a seat but the storage at the originating station costs $24,900/day?

There is really only room for 1 wheelchair in each coach? It always looked to me like there was easily room for two.

In the story, there was no mention of possible other accommodations, like two of the passengers traveling on the previous train and staying an extra day. (Was this the Cardinal which only runs 3 days a week? Still cheaper to book a hotel for an extra day or two...) Can they assist one or more of the wheelchair passengers onto the train and to transfer to a regular seat, then fold up the chair and carry it as luggage? (Which is what they do on planes.)

What they finally decided to have two of the passengers take a van while the other 3 and the other 5 members of the group who don't require wheelchairs all took the train.
 

Devil's Advocate

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It sounds as though the primary problem was that Amtrak didn't do enough to explain the reasoning for what appears to be a sudden and drastic change in mitigation fees combined with an inability to suggest more practical workarounds in a timely fashion. I must admit that if a call center clerk asked me for another $25,000 as if it was a normal travel expense I would probably be just as incensed as these folks. If Amtrak ends up in any legal trouble it may well be an indifferent and dismissive attitude that got them in hot water more than the policy itself.
 
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me_little_me

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Are there two handicapped rooms available? They're cheaper than $25K! And those two would get free food.

Whoops! "Contemporary dining". Would be discrimination to force that garbage on anyone. Never mind.
 

Just-Thinking-51

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5 train daily between Chicago and Bloomington.

This group was using group sales.

Denver Light Rail, is remove seats to add accessibility space after a lawsuit.

Amtrak has no clue what there expenses are. Just making a number up it seems. Reasonable accommodation is the key. The amount quoted is not reasonable, and will (rightly so) cause problems for them.

This should of been addressed before it got this far. The conspiracy theory of driving away the customers fit quite nicely.
 

Anderson

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The problem here is sorting out "reasonable accommodation". For example, does Amtrak have spare cars they could have pressed into service? I highly doubt that the cost of effectively deadheading two cars CHI-STL would be $25k.
 

Bluejet

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Same thing on airplanes. Too many and some will have to take a loter flight !
This isn’t true. I’ve had 85 wheelchairs passengers on a West Palm Beach to Boston flight during “migration” season. Now, there’s no way the flight will be on time, especially if you have a significant amount of aisle chair passengers on board, but no we don’t have a limit.
 

Green Maned Lion

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The incompetence of this is not in their inability to calculate costs, it is in hell expensively they do things. Amfleet II on the cardinal, average revenue $100 per seat per trip, 59 seats, $5900 for the trip. The car is out of service for two roundtrips, one to remove the seats the other to put them back. That is for individual trips losing $5900 for the car. $23,600 in lost revenue, plus several hours of labor of unionized Amtrak ship people. $25k sounds about right for all that rigamorole.

Going to all that to accommodate a handicapped passenger exceeds the requirement of reasonable accommodation. That cost to Amtrak is real. You wouldn’t expect a restaurant to absorb that kind of costs to accommodate an additional pair of diners, and Amtrak is no different.

Their failure is that they can’t perform those tasks more efficiently.
 

AmtrakBlue

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Going to all that to accommodate a handicapped passenger exceeds the requirement of reasonable accommodation. That cost to Amtrak is real. You wouldn’t expect a restaurant to absorb that kind of costs to accommodate an additional pair of diners, and Amtrak is no different.
Or a hotel to make more rooms mobility accessible because of a one time (or once a year) occurrence of more handicapped guests than rooms available. Or establishments adding more handicapped stalls...etc, etc.
 

Seaboard92

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This is really a place for the private car industry to come to the rescue again...

While PVs are not ADA compliant and are exempt from the regulation they are more willing to compromise than Amtrak and make arrangements. I know there are several ex Marc Pvs around that have an ADA door on the vestibule of the car. And I’m sure the owners would gladly take a row or two out. It would be more expensive than what the group is used to but way cheaper than $25,000
 

anumberone

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From reading the story, it seems as though they was another train scheduled three hours later that two could have taken. Seems to me that would have been a logical choice rather than disrupt a service by removing seats and storing, replacing and then probably repeating for the return trip. It for sure would make more sense than for two taking a van.
 

AFS1970

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Oddly enough, this is one of two negative stories about Amtrak that came up in my news feed recently. I haven't read then other one but it also stems from poor customer service. If there is a conspiracy to drive customers away, maybe putting out these stories is part of it.
 

Qapla

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Perhaps, since they were booking 5 seats at the same time, it would have been better to say that Amtrak was charging 5 wheelchair passengers $5,000+ per seat "COACH"

But then, that would not be as eye-catching or sensational as saying they were charging two people $25,000
 

crescent-zephyr

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This is really a place for the private car industry to come to the rescue again...

While PVs are not ADA compliant and are exempt from the regulation they are more willing to compromise than Amtrak and make arrangements. I know there are several ex Marc Pvs around that have an ADA door on the vestibule of the car. And I’m sure the owners would gladly take a row or two out. It would be more expensive than what the group is used to but way cheaper than $25,000
To put this into perspective, what could $25k get me in the private car world?
 

Anderson

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To put this into perspective, what could $25k get me in the private car world?
Probably something along the lines of a two-car private charter from DC to Chicago and back, meals included, presuming the cars were already "in position".
 

Anderson

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The incompetence of this is not in their inability to calculate costs, it is in hell expensively they do things. Amfleet II on the cardinal, average revenue $100 per seat per trip, 59 seats, $5900 for the trip. The car is out of service for two roundtrips, one to remove the seats the other to put them back. That is for individual trips losing $5900 for the car. $23,600 in lost revenue, plus several hours of labor of unionized Amtrak ship people. $25k sounds about right for all that rigamorole.

Going to all that to accommodate a handicapped passenger exceeds the requirement of reasonable accommodation. That cost to Amtrak is real. You wouldn’t expect a restaurant to absorb that kind of costs to accommodate an additional pair of diners, and Amtrak is no different.

Their failure is that they can’t perform those tasks more efficiently.
So, there are a few issues this sort-of brings up:
(1) The mess of the fleet situation in the Midwest. IIRC you've got Superliners, Horizons, and Amfleets (oh my!) and there's a degree of limited compatibility (i.e. you functionally can't run a "split train").
(2) Amtrak's overall tight equipment situation. Put differently, we're carrying around 10m more riders per year in 2019 than we did close to 20 years ago, with little or no additional equipment (depending on how one defines the dates, etc.).

Given that it is January (one of the slower months), if Amtrak had a unified fleet they'd probably be able to pull a few cars out of off-season storage/surplus and accommodate. But with the total mess that is the Chicago fleet situation, that's hit-or-miss at best...and then add in the additional ridership situation (which could be argued to have hit a threshold here) and Amtrak simply doesn't have the capacity to "swing" between routes for something like this (or even, arguably, for "normal" capacity surge events).
 

Just-Thinking-51

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Ski Train is running on weekends in Denver. The TrainJam folks are rolling again this spring. The school crossing guard are visiting DC.

Sometimes effort is required to get things done. Again should of been addressed better and before it got this far.
 
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