Experience a relaxing and unique vacation within a vacation by hitting the rails and traveling the country in an accessible room onboard an Amtrak train
Anticipating the arrival of our train at the Hammond, La., Amtrak station, my husband, Jim, and I were as excited as the grade-school kids who were running amongst the stacks of suitcases. All of us repeatedly gazed down the tracks trying to get the first glimpse of the engine light.
Hammond is a 30-minute drive from our home and the second stop the City of New Orleans train makes heading north to its final destination — Chicago. Months earlier, we had booked our reservation with Amtrak after carefully comparing it to driving and flying.
As the train rolled to a stop in Hammond, a large ramp was provided for my manual wheelchair. While Jim stowed our large suitcase in an open rack near the door, an efficient Amtrak employee escorted us down a short hallway past a row of narrow doors that included restrooms and a shower to our accessible sleeper compartment at the back of the car.
In just under three minutes, the door was closed and our adventure began. We departed Louisiana at 2:30 p.m. and were scheduled to arrive in Chicago at 9 a.m. the following day.
Accessible bedrooms are found on most of Amtrak’s long-distance routes.
Designed for two average-sized adults, they’re offered on two types of Amtrak trains — Superliners and Viewliners. The major difference in the accessible bedrooms is that the Viewliner has an accessible shower and the Superliner doesn’t. You can preview the bedrooms by taking a 3-D tour on Amtrak’s website (amtrak.com).
The City of New Orleans Amtrak train is a Superliner with an accessible bedroom that spans the width of the train.
The compact space measures 6 feet, 9 inches by 9 feet, 5 inches. Two comfortable chairs facing each other are located on the left side of the compartment. The chairs, when pushed together, convert to a bed that is 2-feet, 4-inches wide and 6-feet, 6-inches long. Between the chairs is a small foldout table similar to the tray found on plane seats.
Amenities for an accessible bedroom include complimentary meals, attendant call buttons, electrical outlet, climate control, individual reading lights, towels, bed linens and blankets, bottled water, a daily newspaper and coffee. Our train didn’t have Wi-Fi, but some do.
A passenger in a wheelchair boards an Amtrak train via the train’s lift system. (Courtesy of Amtrak)
The upper berth is folded against the wall, giving the seated passengers open head room.
On the right side of the sleeper, angled into a corner, is a small sink, with open knee space below. Opposite the sink is a toilet. A floor-to-ceiling privacy curtain divides the room. A window on each wall prevents the small space from feeling claustrophobic. The bedroom’s sliding metal door must be latched when open to prevent it from slamming shut as the train rocks.
Our train had two levels. The dining, lounge and observation cars are located on the upper level and are not accessible. Passengers climb a narrow, spiral staircase to reach the upper level.
When it’s mealtime onboard, passengers make reservations and eat in the dining car. Those in an accessible sleeper are served in their cabin. Several entrees are offered including a “light” item and a vegetarian pasta. Menus for all Amtrak dining cars can be viewed online. An Amtrak staff member provided us with menus and delivered a total of five meals to our room.
Throughout the trip, the train stops at stations along the way and it frequently stops to allow freight trains to pass. The duration of most stops is short, and I never exited the train.
Around 9:30 p.m., a train attendant knocked on our door and made our beds. The upper berth easily drops down. Climbing in and out of the bed required some agility. Jim had to maneuver the two steps that were flush with the wall and swing his body over onto the bed. Exiting the bed was equally awkward.
Because of the ceiling height, it was impossible for Jim to sit up without banging his head. Jim’s bed measured 2-feet wide and 6-feet, 2-inches long. A fabric safety harness was hooked to the ceiling and side of the berth to prevent falling.
Early the next morning, an Amtrak staff member came by to turn my bed back into seating and take our breakfast order. I was busy enjoying the view of towns as we traversed Illinois. We arrived at the Chicago station on time with a full day of sightseeing planned.
Planning an Accessible Trip
Amtrak assists wheelchair users in accessing their trains with station-based mobile lifts and bridge plates.
The first step in evaluating if Amtrak is a good option for you depends on where you live and where you want to go. Most routes connect major cities, stopping in small towns along the way. The train traveling the 900-mile stretch between New Orleans and Chicago pauses up to 20 times in places such as Yazoo City, Miss. Begin your evaluation of Amtrak service by consulting the company’s online interactive route atlas.
Accessible seats and spaces are available in coach, business class and first class. You may remain in your wheelchair or transfer to a seat. It’s important to discuss this choice when booking your reservation. Another option especially appealing for long journeys is an accessible bedroom.
Amtrak allows both manual- and power-wheeled mobility devices that weigh no more than 600 pounds occupied, and don’t exceed 30 inches wide and 48 inches long. In addition, mobility devices must have 2 inches of ground clearance.
To make a reservation, call 800-872-7245, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Bypass the automated voice by saying, “Agent.” You also can visit a local station and talk to a ticket agent in person. Go online or call Amtrak to determine the hours a station is open and if it’s staffed.
Reservations can be made up to 11 months prior to your departure date. Accessible seating and bedrooms are limited. Plan early to ensure the dates you wish to travel are available. Booking a reservation early usually results in the best fare.
Passengers with a disability and one companion can receive a 15% discount, which can’t be combined with additional offers. Written documentation of a disability must be provided at the ticket counter and when boarding. Acceptable documents include: transit system ID card, membership letter from a disability organization, physician’s letter, Medicare card (if under age 65), Department of Veterans Affairs ID with “service connected” designation or a disabled parking placard issued by a department of motor vehicles.
Travel by Train
Amtrak has been working hard to make its service accessible. One of the difficulties the company faces is not owning the facilities it uses, such as the station, platform and parking spaces. Getting each owner to comply with accessibility needs is a challenge.
“Much of our earlier focus under the ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act] was making the trains themselves accessible, since that was mostly under our control. Much work has been done with stations and now platforms, thanks to an influx of federal funding,” says Marc Magliari, Amtrak spokesman.
Jim and I agreed that traveling by train was by far more relaxing than driving and didn’t have the stress of air travel. Instead of agonizing over the traffic or rushing to make a connecting flight, we spent the hours talking, reading and writing. For someone who uses a wheelchair, it’s a great way to travel.
For more information, visit amtrak.com.
Jim and Barbara Twardowski cover the travel industry writing about boomer and accessible travel, accommodations, culinary/cultural offerings and destinations.
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