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For long-distance travelers with disabilities, railway transit provides a scenic view of the countryside, a more cost-efficient mode of transportation than air, a spacious and comfortable seating environment, and an opportunity for intriguing pit-stops. But there are considerations train travelers with disabilities must consider – especially when overnight travel is required.
A scenic trip filled with comforts
Trains occupy a nostalgic place in the United States and Europe. The building of the rails across the United States and its territories in the 1800s is considered by many to be the beginning of mobility in the United States – a step away from impractical horse and wagons that powered the Industrial Revolution.
In Europe, trains – both local transit systems and those that travel across many nations – allow residents to travel from country to country with ease.
In all cases, a train is more convenient than an automobile, and less expensive that an airplane ticket. And with gas prices increasing, train travel is being re-discovered by people from all walks of life.
For individuals with disability, the train can still fill its initial mission – to make those that had no practical way to get from place to place mobile. And train operators both local and national have made great strides to accommodate travelers with special needs.
The only limits on train travel are where the actual rails are – there are always going to be places where a train cannot transport an individual. But in this case, surface transportation such as local buses can fill in the gap. The train, thankfully, can take travelers of all abilities levels 90 percent of the way.
Types of railway travel
There are generally two categories of train travel – local and national systems.
Locals systems are those that are found in many cities, they serve as regional mass transit for people who are getting to and from work, as well as leisure travel. More often, these systems serve to transport people on a daily basis; these riders typically will park their own vehicle at the train station to complete their journey.
But national systems, such as Amtrak, are intended for leisure travel. Taking a trip through a national carrier does, however, require some planning. Generally, train operators advise passengers to book their trips at least 14 days in advance to secure accessible seating or accessible cabins because the number of specialized accommodations is typically limited.
Often, national train services will offer a discount to disabled passengers and their travel assistants. Operators will ask what kind of accommodation a passenger requires at the time of reservation. In some cases, if a disability is not visibly apparent, a passenger may be required to complete a certification form when they board the train that verifies their disability; this is a formality to verify people with disabilities always have the first opportunity to reserve an accessible seat or bedroom.
The largest carrier in the United States, Amtrak, also extends a significant discount to children ages 2-11 – a ticket will cost three-quarter of an adult fare.
Making reservations is also easy. Most operators offer online reservation services or telecommunication device, or TTY, options. Train stations are required to be Americans with Disabilities Act (ADD) compliant, so if a person must reserve a ticket at a train station or booking office, an agent will provide whatever assistance is necessary.
Cabins and boarding
Train operators have made significant changes to accommodate passengers with disabilities during the last several decades. Several years ago, the only cabins available were extremely small and offered little in the way of amenities. But today, large, fully-accessible cabins are available. Also, fully-accessible cars have been added to operators’ fleets.
However, the nature of railway cars – and how accessible they actually are – is still a matter that is diverse and complex. Not all train cars have private options; and if a traveler is not careful, he or she could be in for a tough, uncomfortable journey.
Typically, accessible seating is offered in all classes – coach, business class and first class. Travelers often have the option of sitting in their wheelchair, which can be secured into place. But often, passengers will choose to transfer to an accessible seat. Once a passenger is situated, the wheelchair can be stored for the duration of the trip.
If a trip is going to be a multi-day undertaking, a passenger should plan their sleeping arrangements. On the Amtrak system, specialized bedrooms have been introduced that are completely accessible and comfortable. The room is designed for two adults, which makes the trip much easier if a passenger is traveling with a companion, aide, or a service animal.
The room is equipped with enough space for a wheelchair, an accessible bathroom, and personal service much like one would receive in a hotel.
Boarding the train can also present some challenges, but train operators have addressed these issues, as well. Ramps and lifts are available at both train stations and on the trains to meet ingress and egress requirements set forth by the ADA. Low-level platforms will help passengers access the train’s mobile lifts; high platforms help travelers navigate the gap between a train and the bridge plate.
Those using wheelchairs, however, are subject to weight requirements, for both manually-operated wheelchairs and power wheelchairs. These limits are typically in the 500- to 600-pounds for a passenger and wheelchair combined. Other specifications account for proper ground-chair clearance and the physical size of a chair.
Traveling by train with a wheelchair often provides for logistic challenges. The more planning a person undertakes, the better his or her travel experience will be.
A train of thought
Trains have long been a part of the fabric of life both in the United States and Europe. From the famed Orient Express to the Trans-Siberian Railway to Amtrak, a train trip provides an opportunity to travel through the countryside, and view all of its wonders in a visceral, personal way one wouldn’t experience on an airplane.
Trains, more often than not, provide a viable component in getting a person from the comfort of their home to an exciting, exotic locale.
If a person needs assistance, it may be more efficient to consider traveling with a companion, or travel assistant, even if an individual doesn’t normally use the services of a personal care assistant in his or her everyday life.
Also, a passenger should be mindful that employees of a train system can offer only limited assistance to travelers. They can help passengers board, and de-board, a train. Additionally, they can hand-deliver meals and help a traveler transfer from a wheelchair to an accessible seat. However, train employees cannot assist a passenger with personal needs. If a traveler needs help with taking medication, feeding, dressing or in the restroom, it would be best to have a travel companion on board.
For people with mobility challenges, travel often seems like something that is not practical, even if a person harbors a dream to see the world and experience other cultures. For travelers that have never taken a trip by train, the notion can be somewhat intimidating. But traveling, like other goals, can be achieved through executing a sound plan of travel and preferably making arrangements in advance.
Today, more options are available than ever before. Trains are one of those. Don’t be afraid to ask for help – train operators have trained employees on board that can answer questions and provide solutions to a traveler’s concerns. Remember, there if there’s a will, there’s a way, and there’s always someone will to help.
On the Go!
Transportation, for a person with a disability, is a major concern because when he or she can’t get from place to place, it tends to restrict him or her from participating in other life activities. Advances in technology have made private vehicle travel attainable, and even more preferable. More and more, individuals with a disability are able to modify their vehicles and obtain adaptive driver’s licensure to enhance independence. Whether traveling by air, by bus, on a train or in a wheelchair, travel must be safe and convenient for all.