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Nov 3, 2016

AMTRAK – by Wheelchair on the Empire Builder

AMTRAK train routes cover most parts of the US and provide access travelers with a very comfortable way to see small towns, cities and countryside up close from vantage points freeway drivers cannot access.  

The Empire Builder route runs from Portland and Seattle through Saint Paul in Minnesota to Chicago, a distance of 2,206 miles (3550 km). The entire trip takes 48 hours (although hold ups happen from time to time along the way). It is a comfortable, terrific way to see “America’s back yard” – views of the countryside and towns along the way that are a much more natural and interesting than the gas stations and fast food outlets that are the scenery of the freeway.

But, like all travel in the US it takes planning to ensure it is a pleasurable experience, not an ordeal. And probably the most important way to do that comes with your choice of on-board accommodation – either coach (seated), or sleeper. Coach can be upstairs or down – there are short steepish steps to the upper level. Seats on both levels are wide and comfortable with more leg room than on a plane. There is a generous space for wheelchairs and options of staying in the chair or moving to a seat.

If you are travelling on an AMTRAK route that includes overnight travel, a helpful aspect is that the motion of the train is smooth – no swaying from side to side. And it’s quiet. If you are thinking of the lower coast coach seating option, it really comes down to how well you sleep on a plane. If it’s no problem, then by all means travel this way. If you don’t then you will get more travelling pleasure looking at an alternative – either not going the whole route, or taking a more expensive sleeper.

Sleepers include an accessible option, described by AMTRAK as follows: The Superliner Accessible Bedroom is a lower-level room that provides ample 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:

  • Space for two passengers;
  • Ample space for a wheelchair;
  • Wheelchair accessible toilet and sink separated by a privacy curtain.

Train travel this way would be exceptionally relaxing, especially on very scenic routes.

Having decided on the kind on sleeper/coach and booked a trip, it’s time to go back to the start and make sure you have arranged transport of some kind to get you to the station on time – it’s that planning thing remember, plan EVERYTHING.

Having succeeded at that you are good to go. Wheelchair boarding is no problem, there are ramps and assistance if needed. On the train is really all about relaxing and watching the US go by. There are accessible toilets, and your baggage is always handy if you need it. Food is a slight problem for those unable to go upstairs to get to the dining car. But the on-board staff are happy to bring it to you.   

Of course if you want to you can stop off along the way to explore places of particular interest and pick up the train again next day/the day after/etc.

And the experience overall? For this wheelchair traveller surprise at the smoothness of the ride and far more enjoyable passing through the cornfields of Minnesota and Wisconsin and the towns along the way, than flying over it or driving through on the freeway. A mistake staying on overnight on another train heading for Washington, but feeling history come alive as it travelled through Civil War sites in West Virginia.  

 Would go again – but at night only in a sleeper.