Last winter, I took my first train ride to visit a friend in New York City. With my walker and other necessities in tow, I was quite worried about logistics. Thankfully, Amtrak offered abundant resources both before and during my trip that made it incredibly easy. Booking My Trip
I began by visiting the Amtrak website and entering my search criteria into the booking engine at the top of the homepage. After selecting a date, a drop-down menu asked if I wanted to add other travelers or select a discount. Amtrak offers discounts for passengers with disabilities, older adults and veterans, among others. Amtrak also has a discount for personal assistants/companions. I selected the disability category and was prompted on the following page to select which accommodations I would like. Charlottesville Amtrak Station
Most passengers do not need to check in, but Amtrak encourages passengers who need assistance boarding the train to do so. When my train was called, an employee carried my bag from the station’s seating area to a waiting golf cart and drove me straight to the train’s boarding area. They offered to bring a ramp to the train, but I was able to navigate the three somewhat tall steps while an employee carried my walker up (more information on taking wheeled mobility aids here). The mobility aid storage area was the same as the luggage storage, so my walker was tucked among suitcases and other belongings. On the Train
I rode the Crescent model train on both legs of my trip. The accessible seating area occupies the first rows of seating after the steps, making for a fairly short walk to my seat. The train’s center aisle was not wide enough for a wheeled mobility device, so full-time mobility aid users can only change cars with staff assistance at a stop.
Two bathroom stalls, one of which was accessible, were located right next to the accessible seating. The non-accessible bathroom stall had a very difficult lock that I was not able to close due to weakness in my hands. The accessible bathroom, however, had an easier locking mechanism as well as grab bars and a higher seat.
For me, one huge plus of train travel was the ability to get out of my seat whenever necessary. I was able to stretch my legs and head off potential joint pain by walking down the aisle. Best of all, the seats were very wide with tons of leg room. They also featured a fold out leg rest and reclining seat back. Penn Station
My experience at the busy Penn Station was quite different than Charlottesville’s small hub. Amtrak offers Red Cap service at their twelve busiest stations, including Penn Station. Red Caps are Amtrak employees dedicated to helping passengers with luggage, motorized rides through the station, and other general assistance. When I boarded the train in Charlottesville, the conductor called ahead to arrange for Red Caps to meet the train upon arrival for all passengers requesting assistance. Unfortunately, we experienced several delays and arrived at the same time as three other trains. We could either wait until a Red Cap became available or fend for ourselves. Disembarking the train and exiting the station would have been impossible for me without help. Thankfully, I had a lovely seatmate (Hi, Nicole!) who helped me off the train and out of the station.
When it was time to leave a few days later, I arrived forty-five minutes early to secure Red Cap assistance with boarding. My friend and I were unable to find anyone to help me before it was time to head to the platform, so she accompanied me. We only had fifteen minutes from when they announced my train’s arrival platform to the scheduled departure time. It took us every one of those fifteen minutes to find the appropriate elevators down to the platform due to unclear signage. While most passengers simply took an escalator straight down to the platform, I had to take two different elevators at opposite ends of the concourse. Overall Tips
Planning ahead is key. Make sure you request the right accommodations when booking your trip. I also recommend packing light—I brought a small suitcase in addition to my walker, but even that was too much to navigate on my own. Train delays can be very long and unexpected, so pack plenty of extra medications, snacks, etc. just in case. Finally, make sure to arrive early and check in at the front desk upon arrival. This way, you can reiterate what assistance or accommodations you need and help ensure they happen.
Trains are a great travel option, but are not without their own drawbacks. Know what to expect so you can have an easy, stress-free trip!