Q: Hi there, Peter. I would like to take a trip on Amtrak's California Zephyr. I have multiple sclerosis. I cannot transfer from a wheelchair alone, but my husband travels with me and helps me transfer. I also have a service dog. Is it possible to enjoy a trip on the Zephyr, or will they stick me in baggage as they did on Amtrak from Fullerton, Calif., to San Diego?
La Habra, Calif.
A: I am not sure exactly what happened on your last Amtrak trip that landed you in baggage, but I contacted Amtrak to get the latest information on their policies for accessible travel.
Near the front of each car, all Amtrak trains have handicapped seats, which have more legroom than normal seats. However, it is a common misconception that handicapped seats can be reserved by people with disabilities. They cannot be. As with subway trains, anyone can sit in these seats, but nondisabled passengers should defer to disabled ones as a matter of courtesy. (If you prefer to stay in your chair for the whole journey, wheelchair space can be reserved but is limited.)
So, on your journey between Fullerton, Calif., and San Diego (which I assume was on the Pacific Surfliner service), you may have found that all the handicapped seats were taken. Your options would have been to sit in a regular seat, stay in your wheelchair, or stand. However, if the train was full when you got on (which sometimes happens when it's oversold), you might have been asked stay in your chair as an alternative to standing. You take your chances when riding trains such as the Surfliner because it is a corridor service that does not allow seat reservations, and seating is first-come, first-served.
Incidentally, the Surfliner doesn't have a baggage car; it only has baggage-storage areas at the ends of each car where luggage and other equipment can be stowed. When you say you were "stuck in baggage," I assume you mean you were asked to sit in your wheelchair in the stowage area. Again, this is not a great alternative, but it's safer than having your wheelchair out in the middle of an aisle or corridor.
Overnight trains, such as the California Zephyr, and high-demand services, such as the Northeast Regional train, are a whole different animal. They require you to reserve a seat. Again, this doesn't guarantee you a handicapped seat, but it guarantees you a seat somewhere on the train. For better luck getting a handicapped seat, start your journey at a larger station. When you get to the station, let one of the "red caps" know you're there and that you need assistance. They'll help you preboard and will give you preference for a handicapped seat. The Zephyr and other overnight trains each have one handicapped room in each sleeper car, and they have separate baggage cars.
If you have disabilities, it's best to book an Amtrak journey over the phone rather than online so that a live agent can personally go over procedures and options with you. The toll-free number is 800-USA-RAIL (872-7245).