I struck out with Amtrak’s Empire Builder

A lack of handicapped facilities on Amtrak makes Anne Evans’ journey through the American West a nightmare. Is she entitled to a refund?

Question: I can’t get a refund from Amtrak for its totally inappropriate “handicapped” room on the Empire Builder from Chicago to Glacier National Park.

The room was not safe: there was no room for a wheelchair, no grab bars, and there were no safety bars on the toilet. There was no room for two people to sit and eat at the same time, and since my husband and I were downstairs and far from the dining car, this is where we had to have all meals.

Also, there were sharp metal protrusions that injured both my husband and me.

After almost three months, the only offer I got was a voucher on a future trip. This was after emails to the CEO, chief operating officer and my travel agent.

I would like at least a 50 percent refund. I can’t travel on Amtrak again because the room was not safe or comfortable for my disabled husband. I would even accept a $500 check, but not a voucher for travel that I can’t use. — Anne Evans, Chicago

Answer: I’m sorry about your unhappy experience on Amtrak. The Empire Builder is a 46-hour train ride through some of the most beautiful parts of the American West. In Amtrak’s promotional material, it invites you to “experience the rugged splendor of the American West” by traveling along major portions of the Lewis and Clark trail and following the footsteps of early pioneers.

OK, I have to admit, this one’s on my bucket list.

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Alas, there’s no mention of handicapped facilities (or lack thereof) on Amtrak’s site. A little research will reveal that Amtrak offers something called a Superliner Accessible Bedroom, a lower-level room that offers enough space for a wheelchair. The room spans the entire width of the train and is designed for use by two adults: a passenger with a mobility impairment and a companion.

You should have reasonably expected the facilities associated with a handicapped-accessible room, including the grab bars and no sharp, protruding objects. Amtrak should be grateful that you pointed out these dangers and ought to fix them after your report. But I’m not sure if anything can be done about the distance from the dining car. Since the Amtrak’s accessible bedrooms extend the entire width of the train on the lower level, that may be a design limitation.

By the way, if you’re thinking of taking a lengthy train trip in the United States, you may want to check Amtrak’s 3-D tour feature on its website. You’ll get a pretty good idea of what to expect.

When your trip didn’t go as expected, a brief email or letter to Amtrak should have quickly addressed your problems. After your travel agent got involved, the company offered a $500 credit toward a future Amtrak trip, which was unacceptable. After your misadventures on the Empire Builder, why would you and your husband try Amtrak again? I would recommend driving in your own car next time. You don’t want to rush a trip through the American West. Bring your own car or van to ensure that you have all the amenities you need.

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You appealed your decision to several Amtrak executives, which was a great idea. I list the names, numbers and email addresses on my consumer advocacy site.

I contacted Amtrak on your behalf, and your travel agent also worked hard for a resolution. After some negotiations, the carrier agreed to refund $500.

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or check out his adventures on his family adventure travel site. Contact him at chris@elliott.org. Read more of Christopher's articles here.

  • PsyGuy

    Wasn’t there another of these cases over similar issues?

  • scoosdad

    This seems to be an update with final resolution on the same complaint. Same OP, different Elliott site author, from November:


  • jmj

    I smell an ADA lawsuit coming. Not from this OP, but from an enterprising plaintiffs’ attorney.

  • finance_tony

    Thanks! Thought I was having deja vu.

  • Sandra

    We travel all over the world and I have found train travel to be the most restricting of all, mainly because of the length of time you are “imprisoned” in a moving train. The passenger trains must pull over to sidings to allow freight trains to pass therefore the passenger trains are always late. We took a similar trip and were supposed to have time to disembark at various stops but due to the fact that we never got there on time, the stops were often in the middle of the night. Yes, you can walk around far more than in an airplane but that gets old quickly. The scenery is fabulous; not leaving the train for three days….not so much!

  • sirwired

    Thought I’d mention that each car with an accessible room only has one of them; they can’t all be close to the dining car.

  • sirwired

    Huh; I thought the rules changed a while back giving Amtrak priority… there was actually a bit of a dispute about it that made it all the way to the Supreme Court; I don’t remember how it turned out.

  • sirwired

    Yeah, it’d probably be good if there was a link back to the original article, but I’m willing to wager they simply forgot the case had already been written about.

  • Sandra

    I am not aware of any changes; freight is far more important in this country and in Canada than passengers. Since this trip I have not traveled by train so perhaps there HAS been a change that I didn’t know. The VIA, Canada’s version of AmTrak, had the same rules when we traveled with them through the Canadian Rockies three years ago. Give me a nice riverboat cruise any time LOL!!

  • ChelseaGirl

    Selling a handicapped-accessible that has little room for a wheelchair and no safety bars can’t possibly be legal. They’re lucky she isn’t suing.

  • jm71

    I think the bigger issue is that in the two level Superliner trains, the accessible bedrooms are only the lower level, both because there’s no elevator and because it spans the width of the car — and the inter-car connections (and the dining car’s seating) are on the upper level.

    At least this was true when my family did a cross-country trip in 1986, and from the Amtrak website it doesn’t look like a lot has changed in the car layouts!

  • gpx21dlr

    I don’t recommend AMTRAK unless you can afford a room. I had a “bucket list” trip in 2014 and I ‘trained’ from Oakland to Niagara Falls with stops in LA, Tucson, Houston, NOLA, DC, NYC & Niagara. It was one of the worst trips of my life. American train travel is awful. Trains were always late, sleeping in coach lives much to be desired and dining is a joke. I could write a book but I didn’t enjoy my AMTRAK experience.

  • PsyGuy

    I thought I was as well.

  • The Original Joe S

    All over again?

  • The Original Joe S

    “the passenger trains are always late”
    Not the GERMAN and AUSTRIAN trains! EN PUNTO! 5 seconds late; you missed the train!

  • The Original Joe S

    Where’s the river out to the west with a boat? Enquiring minds want to know! Ha ha ha ha ha!

  • The Original Joe S

    If Benny were running AMTRAK, they’d be on time. But, he’s gone.

  • Lee

    What strikes me (well, one of a few things) is that these rooms are on the ‘lower level’ – which is really insulting to relegate certain passengers in this way to the least desirable part of the train and thus making the dining car inaccessible. Amtrak is a a horror as far as I am concerned and they should be wholly ashamed of this discriminatory practice. Glad they got that refund, but it should have been for the whole amount as far as I am concerned.

  • Sandra

    Well, not too far out west but we’re taking a cruise down the lower Mississippi from Memphis to Nashville this fall. But…the European river cruises are top of the line in travel IMHO. 5 star treatment re: food, wine, fairly large cabins (if you buy the top of the line ones….we always get the least expensive and spend that extra money elsewhere) and service. Our next one is Oct. 2018: French culinary trip, Paris to Normandy

  • Sandra

    Isn’t that the way it should be? If it says arriving at 5:00 p.m. that’s when I want to arrive, not at 10:00 p.m. I will never travel American or Canadian trains again if I can avoid them.

  • SierraRose 49

    We loved riding Alaska’s Wilderness Express train; part of our cruise tour. One thing we noticed is that there was a lift for people in wheelchairs or walkers to get up into the dome car. While this is just a short run train from point to point and not an overnight train with sleepers, the lift is a nice feature. Maybe someday Amtrak will have a lift so people in the lower level accessible rooms can get up to the upper level dining car.

  • Lindabator

    they can’t “magically” wave a wand to get them to the 2nd level – so they do make accommodations to have meals served in their room

  • Lindabator

    not every car has a dining level, so won;t work if they have to move from car to car, which is impossible in a wheelchair

  • JewelEyed

    I’m glad that we got an update on this case. It’s nice to know how it turned out.

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