Sen. Duckworth Slams Amtrak Over $25K Price For Disabled Passengers
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
A U.S. senator is demanding an explanation from Amtrak after an NPR report about the rail operator trying to charge two people who use wheelchairs $25,000 for a short train ride that would normally just cost $16. Since NPR's report last Friday, Amtrak has changed its position, at least a little bit. NPR correspondent Joseph Shapiro is here with us with more.
JOSEPH SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.
CHANG: All right, so let's just start by reminding everyone about your report last week. What was this about Amtrak trying to charge $25,000 for wheelchair access? What?
SHAPIRO: Right. So these two people saw how much Amtrak wanted to charge them - $25,000. And they figured, OK, it's a mistake. This will be corrected quickly. After all, the usual price for that train ride from Chicago to the station in Bloomington-Normal is $16. But Amtrak said, no, that's really what we're going to charge you.
SHAPIRO: Right. And here's why. Because there were five people who use wheelchairs from a service and advocacy group called Access Living, and they're headed to a statewide conference on Wednesday. And Amtrak said, we only have space for three of the five people on that train. And to add the other two, we're going to have to take the train out of service while we unbolt two more seats to make space for your wheelchairs. Total cost to you - $25,000.
CHANG: Twenty-five thousand dollars. And has Amtrak responded to your NPR story?
SHAPIRO: Yes. So this morning, two senior Amtrak officials spoke to a lawyer for Access Living. And they said, OK, we've figured out a way to make space for these two extra riders without pulling up seats, so now they can ride no extra cost. And Access Living said, OK, we're going to take your offer.
CHANG: All right. So is everyone happy with this resolution?
SHAPIRO: You know, not quite, because the people at Access Living - first, they want a long-term solution, right?
SHAPIRO: They want access - they want Amtrak to promise that they're not going to charge those high rates in the future. Plus, there was a complication today. Remember I said the travelers are headed to a statewide conference. Well, now there's another disability group going to the same conference, and they're sending...
SHAPIRO: ...Two more people in wheelchairs, so four extra seats are needed now. But just a few moments ago, Amtrak said that it would find room for all four wheelchairs. So that's a big change, by the way, from Friday night after our story aired on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, when Amtrak sent us a statement and it suggested that the group should - they could find other plans, other ways to travel. Maybe some would take an earlier train or a later train.
CHANG: Amtrak says, just go find some alternatives. How did that go over?
SHAPIRO: Not great because everyone wants to ride that 7 a.m. train. That is the earliest train. The next train is two hours later, and that would mean getting in late for the conference. And, sure, some people could come the night before, but there's the expense of paying for the hotel. And, remember; it's harder for people in wheelchairs to travel in a small town, sometimes even a big city. It's hard to find a cab that's going to take someone in a power wheelchair. It's not always easy to find an accessible hotel.
CHANG: And now we have word that a senator is speaking out about all this.
SHAPIRO: Yes. So, in fact, yesterday, Senator Tammy Duckworth said it was outrageous that Amtrak would charge so much. And she said it was, quote, "disappointing" that Amtrak had, quote, "failed to offer a public apology." Senator Duckworth asked the CEO of Amtrak, Richard Anderson, to meet with her to talk about the policy.
CHANG: And it's probably worth noting, I mean, Senator Duckworth - she's an Army veteran. She uses a wheelchair.
SHAPIRO: She does. She was an Army helicopter pilot injured in Iraq. She has two prosthetic legs. And she's been a watchdog on these issues. She's the ranking member of the Senate Subcommittee on Transportation and Security (ph). And Amtrak told me this afternoon that they're reviewing their policy and that they will meet with Senator Duckworth.
CHANG: That's NPR's Joe Shapiro.
Thank you, Joe.
SHAPIRO: Thank you.
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