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Amtrak apologizes for $25,000 ticket price for Chicago to Bloomington-Normal trip

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CHICAGO (WMAQ) -- A Chicago-based disability rights group contends Amtrak wanted to charge $25,000 to accommodate several wheelchair users on a one-way train ride from Chicago to Bloomington -- a trip that normally costs $16.

Adam Ballard, the housing and transportation police analyst at Access Living, said about a month ago, the group reached out to Amtrak to set up travel arrangements for a meeting in Bloomington this week.

Ballard stated Amtrak said it would need to charge $25,000 to reconfigure a train car to meet the group's needs if more than three wheelchairs needed to be accommodated.

"It didn't seem anywhere close to right," he said. "...My first thought was 'that's a car'...I could buy a car for that."

Ballard said the group has used Amtrak to book trips downstate for the past 8 to 10 years, and in some instances, paid additional money for accommodations, particularly during larger trips with 10 to 15 wheelchair users.

However, in those situations, the charges only amounted to a few hundred dollars extra, he said. In some instances, Amtrak even took a decommissioned cafe car and removed half of the first class seats to accommodate the wheelchairs.

"We don't really understand why, again, what had been a pretty productive relationship had suddenly changed out of the blue," Ballard said. "It's really frustrating."

Although Ballard said he believed Amtrak's price quote isn't a violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act, others see it differently.

Illinois Sen. Tammy Duckworth, a disability advocate who lost both of her legs in the Iraq War, called Amtrak's quote "outrageous."

The ADA "has been the law of the land for 30 years," Sen. Duckworth said in a tweet. "Yet in 2020, Amtrak believes it would be an unreasonable burden to remove architectural barriers that would enable a group with five wheelchair users to travel together."

Duckworth added that Amtrak "must do better moving forward" and said she has requested a meeting with the company's CEO to discuss changing its policy regarding rail car configuration for wheelchair customers.

After reports of Amtrak's charges surfaced, Ballard said the company reached out to Access Living and said it could accommodate up to five people for the upcoming trip and won't charge the $25,000.

But according to Ballard, a sister disability advocate center in the Chicago suburbs decided to send two staff members to the meeting, totaling seven wheelchair users on the train.

"Again the bigger issue is, even if we get to an agreement for this week, we need to know how they're going to handle the big group trips coming up later in the spring, and they haven't been willing to engage on it," he said.

In a statement sent to NBC 5 Monday afternoon, Amtrak said it contacted Access Living and apologized for any inconvenience.

"Amtrak is complying with the Americans with Disabilities Act and is committed to meeting the needs of all our customers," Marc Magliari, an Amtrak spokesperson said, "We will work with this group of passengers on an alternative plan to facilitate their upcoming trip."

Amtrak also says it has contacted Sen. Duckworth's office to schedule a meeting with senior Amtrak leadership to review what it charges when special re-configurations of trains are requested.

Disability rights advocates rally to protest Amtrak in Chicago (Photo: NBC Chicago)

Sheridan Swathwood

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