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Amtrak Reverses Course On $25,000 Bill

Members of the Illinois Network of Centers for Independent Living (INCIL) demonstrate in front of the Bloomington-Normal Amtrak station in Illinois to demand the suspension of an Amtrak policy that led to exorbitant fees for removing train seats to accommodate riders in wheelchairs. Later on Wednesday, Amtrak announced it would suspend the policy.

Amtrak will dump a policy that led to two people who use wheelchairs being told they'd have to pay $25,000 for a train ticket that usually costs just $16, the rail service announced Wednesday.

"After further review, Amtrak has determined to suspend the policy in question," said Amtrak spokesperson Marc Magliari. "It was never meant to be applied to this situation. And we apologize for the mistake."

He spoke shortly after a group of people with disabilities demonstrated outside an Amtrak station in Illinois, chanting: "We will ride."

Adam Ballard was one of them. He was also one of the two wheelchair users who faced that $25,000 bill.

Ballard is the transportation policy analyst for a disability service and advocacy group, Access Living, based in Chicago. Five people in wheelchairs from the group, including Ballard, took the two-hour ride on Wednesday morning from Chicago to the Bloomington-Normal station, to attend a statewide conference of disability organizations.

Ballard said everything went fine when they boarded the train in the dark in Chicago. "Everyone got on the train really great. We were treated like kings and queens," he says. There was extra staff to help with bags and work the wheelchair lifts. "And they had extra staff on the train to attend to our every need. So it was not the typical Amtrak ride," he added.

And the cost: the regular $16 fare.

But when the group first booked their tickets, Amtrak said it had room for only three wheelchair users on that train, not five, and that it would need to take a car out of service and pull up seats to make more room. But that was expensive, and under an Amtrak policy for reconfiguring rail cars, the two riders would have to pay $25,000.

Adam Ballard, of the disability service and advocacy group Access Living, uses a wheelchair lift at Chicago's Union Station to board a train to Bloomington-Normal, to attend a statewide disability conference.
/ Courtesy of Bridget Hayman
Adam Ballard, of the disability service and advocacy group Access Living, uses a wheelchair lift at Chicago's Union Station to board a train to Bloomington-Normal, to attend a statewide disability conference.

Amtrak makes one space available on each rail car, to meet its obligations under the Americans with Disabilities Act. That law, which turns 30 this year, prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in jobs, schools, public accommodations and transportation. A business is required to remove barriers when it is easy to do. A business is exempted from making such accommodations when doing so creates an "undue hardship." That's defined as a significant difficulty or expense. The rule of thumb is that a business should expect to make back the cost of an accommodation in added business, like a restaurant that adds a ramp at the front door. As a result, businesses don't charge people with disabilities more than anyone else.

There have been rare exceptions. Amtrak faced a similar case in 2005, when another disability advocacy group booked a train from Pennsylvania to Washington, D.C. Amtrak said it would need to remove six seats from the train to accommodate the 12 passengers in wheelchairs. It added a $200 surcharge for each seat it needed to remove. The group, Disabled in Action of Pennsylvania, sued and a court ruled in favor of Amtrak.

NPR first reported the story of the $25,000 ticket charge on Friday. That led to criticism, including from U.S. Senator Tammy Duckworth. The lllinois Democrat is the ranking member of the Senate Subcommittee on Transportation and Safety, which has jurisdiction over interstate transportation. Duckworth, an Army veteran, uses a wheelchair because of injuries from the downing of a Blackhawk helicopter she was co-piloting in Iraq.

On Sunday, Duckworth called Amtrak's charge "outrageous" and asked for a meeting with Amtrak's CEO, Richard Anderson.

On Monday, Amtrak said it would waive the $25,000 fee and find room for the added wheelchair users on the train. Then this afternoon, Amtrak said it would end the policy that led to the big bill in the first place.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.