Protect Amtrak: An Important Part of Our Transportation Infrastructure

Editor’s Note: In our Independence Day post, we discussed the 21st Century Agenda on Aging and Vision Loss and the first goal of increasing funding for services to maximize independence for older persons with vision loss. In today’s post, we cover one of the initiatives of goal three of the Agenda, the need for good and available transportation for all phases of life as noted in this quote from AFB’s report related to the White House Conference on Aging:

“For me, increasing vision loss means I can’t drive. I don’t live near a bus line, so transportation is a huge problem. First, a colleague drove me, but our schedules weren’t always the same. I had to get a part-time job to decrease the number of times I would need transportation help. That cut my income in half. I’m looking for a job I can do from home, [but] most of these jobs require computer use, which—vision-wise—is [becoming more difficult].”

Unfortunately, the administration’s proposed budget makes major cuts to one of our country’s mainstays for transportation—Amtrak. In the proposed budget, 225 cities across 23 states are slated to lose all passenger railway service if Congress approves the administration’s budget cuts. It is critical for the VisionAware audience to understand the ramifications of these proposed cuts to many sectors of society. Under the proposed budget, all long-distance Amtrak passenger train service would lose federal support and could be discontinued. The national passenger train network would be destroyed which means it would no longer be possible to cross the United States by train.

Amtrak at Risk: Reasons Why People with Visual Impairments Need Affordable Public Transportation Services

by Max Ivey, VisionAware Peer Advisor

man sitting on train with laptop open

I was asked to write about what the potential loss of Amtrak would mean to people who are blind or visually impaired. While I will address this subject, I should mention that there is a whole host of other groups who would also be damaged by the loss of or drastic decrease in service of Amtrak. I know this because I have used Amtrak in the past, and I plan to use it again in the future. I’ve met older persons traveling to visit children and grandchildren; I’ve talked to small business owners and budding entrepreneurs who are traveling for business meetings, and I’ve heard about how people in rural areas would be isolated without this resource for traveling to neighboring towns and cities. And, yes, it would make my life and the lives of other blind people much more difficult.

Benefits of Amtrak

Less Stressful

I say this because Amtrak offers something you can’t get with planes or buses. Airports are only located in large cities. This means you have to navigate great distances between your home and the airport when leaving. It also means that your final destination may be miles from the town you want or need to visit. Also, traveling by plane has become unreasonably stressful. I cringe when I think about the long lines for security screenings that require you to be there hours before your departure and submit to invasive computer imaging or even a physical pat down. I think of harried staff and passengers acting badly, and that doesn’t include the long delays many airlines are guilty of.

Buses will get you to where you need to go, but quite often, you are looking at hours if not days to get to your destination. You are stuck in vehicles with limited seat space, and you have little or no access to the comforts of the train. You may share one bathroom among 40 or more people, and you can expect at least one layover.

Now, I should mention that my first experience with Amtrak was as one of their Amtrak writers in residence. They sent me on a wonderful trip to New York City all expenses paid and first class. I had a sleeper car and attendants waiting on me. I actually wondered what their service would feel like in business class or coach. I recently found that out when traveling to Philadelphia to give a public talk. I rode there in coach.

Comfortable Seats and Helpful Staff

I found the seats very comfortable with plenty of legroom available. The seats reclined 45 degrees and each came with a foot rest that I could raise to support my feet. Car attendants would ask me every so often if I needed anything. They were very helpful in getting me to and from the dining car, observation car, club car, and the bathrooms. They also made sure that I got on and off the train when and where I needed to be. They escorted me from the waiting area to the train platform and then assisted me on to the train and guided me to my seat. They did the reverse when I got to my stop. The two times in the six-week trip from which I recently returned when I did miss a train stop, they took care of it immediately. In one case, they put me on a train back to the correct station. In another case, they figured out that if I got off at the next station, the train I needed to connect with would pick me up there. I was told that if necessary they would hire a taxi at their expense to return me to the proper station. This is the most important part of Amtrak. It’s not just having access to over 600 towns and cities across America and Canada, it is in knowing that you are safe when traveling by train. It’s this confidence in their willingness to look out for you that makes the Amtrak system so valuable to people who are blind or visually impaired. I like to be as independent as the next person, sighted or not, but it’s a lot easier doing this when you have faith that there are people around you watching and making sure no harm comes to you.

Access to Smaller Cities

On my last trip, I went from my hometown of Houston, Texas, to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to Buffalo, New York, to Spartanburg, South Carolina, and back home again. Spartanburg doesn’t have an airport, so I would have had to fly into Greenville and then figured out how to cover over 30 miles to the place I needed to be if it weren’t for Amtrak. As I was visiting relatives, they may have helped me reach my destination, but it would have been a hardship. That’s just one example of why Amtrak is better than flying.

Leeway with Baggage

Also, on the train, you are allowed so much more leeway with your baggage. You can carry up to two checked and two carry-on bags without paying anything extra. The bags can’t weigh more than 50 pounds, but this is still a blessing. Quite often blind people have additional equipment or devices that take up space and weight in their suitcases. On the plane, you would have to pay a steep additional fee to carry the same bags. If you need to, they will even sell you four additional bag slots for $20. I met a man on my last trip who was relocating to Florida. Instead of hiring a moving company, he left his furniture in New York and moved all of his other stuff by Amtrak.

Emotional Value

I can’t quit talking about Amtrak without mentioning the emotional value of this company/service to people who are visually impaired. I love the song "City of New Orleans" by Arlo Guthrie. He has a line, "Ride their fathers’ magic carpets, made of steel," about the sons of Pullman porters and engineers. When I went to New York as a writer in residence, my eyes were opened to the possibilities. I thought, “Heck, Max, once you make it to the Houston terminal, you can go anywhere in the country. No longer do I feel trapped in my room behind my laptop screen wishing for the day when I could go meet more people face to face.” I am a self-published author, and I am now envisioning a nationwide tour to promote my next book. I’m thinking of calling it "the trains, buses, Uber, and taxi tour."

I won’t say our trains are perfect. They require you to accept a slower pace for getting to your destination. This is not a problem for me or most blind people because our loss of sight has taught us patience. I love the conversations I have had on the train. I look forward to who I will meet the next time I head out on Amtrak. I enjoy being able to get a meal, snack, cold coke or beer, etc. I love not feeling like a big dog in a small kennel. But most of all, I love knowing that I can go so many places without depending upon family, spouse, girlfriend, a paid assistant, etc. I have fun thinking about where I’m going to next. I love people telling me I am an inspiration, and it not being just about being a blind person, but for being able and willing to travel by myself anywhere in this great country I want to go to.

Taking Away Opportunities and Dreams

So, we can’t let this valuable resource go away. Even a decrease in the number of towns and cities served would be crushing to our ability to travel where we want as well as a blow to our independence and ability to be an active part of our society. It would take away so many opportunities especially for people who are on fixed incomes. It would also eliminate many people’s dreams. I’m sure I’m not the only person who visits the Amtrak site and dreams about the future. I’m sure I’m also not the only small business owner, author, speaker, coach, etc. who depends upon the access afforded by Amtrak. We need more trains and more routes, not less. If our country was truly interested in the future success of the nation, we would be building bullet trains between the major business and poetical destinations. And if we are really worried about the future of the planet, we should be building better trains and offering more accessible routes for everyone instead of developing driverless cars.

I look forward to a time when our train system in the US rivals that of the UK, China, or India. I also hope someday soon there are even more places I can go via Amtrak and via rail their sister company in Canada.

Action Steps

Now that you have read the post, consider what action steps you can take such as calling or writing your representatives and senators and letting them know the importance of Amtrak service. Another approach is reaching out to the House and Senate appropriations committees that deal with transportation and possibly the House and Senate budget committees.

Additional Articles

Budget Threatens Massive Cuts

Transportation Alternatives

Accessible Transportation

Finding Rides When You Can’t Drive