Amtrak as a plus size, disabled traveler
Updated: Aug 4, 2019
Article by Dave Camisa
I have travelled on Amtrak various times on long distance overnight trips from NYC to Orlando, Chicago and towards the west coast, as well as regional service in the east. There are some good and not so good things about Amtrak. First, I am big: 4x, 5'11" and 400+ pounds and have for the last few years had to travel as a handicapped passenger. For me, it's still a more civilized way to travel. I have not traveled on the high speed Acela, First Class travel between Boston and Washington DC, nor the Coasts Starlight trains along the west coast, so I don't know much to comment on for those.
Amtrak treats its handicapped passengers wonderfully. I have never experienced a problem. Always when making reservations request wheelchair assistance if offered at your stations. Also, seek Redcap service if offered at your departure station for help with your luggage. Also mention it to your car attendant to alert the arriving station about luggage and assistance. I had some very helpful folks in Chicago - they used a 'golf cart' for me and my luggage, as well as two other passengers. I tipped a few dollars for their help.
Amtrak trains have varying styles for boarding, depending on the station. Most are ground level. Some have fixed concrete platforms, found in larger towns and cities. Platforms are the easiest as they are nearly level to the car the you are boarding. Ground level can be a little difficult for east of Chicago and east coast trains. Single level cars, like trains of old, have a few steps to climb to get into the car. Some stations have portable wheel chair lifts, but only offered to wheel chair folks. Bi-level or Superliner cars are a bit different. Those boarding doors, one at the center of the car's lower level are much closer to the ground, but you still have to step up a little. Conductors and car attendants offer small steps to help board. I believe they also have a small portable ramp for wheel chairs. Again, it's important to note this when reserving, some smaller stations are not manned.
Cars and classes
There's standard coach, business class (on some routes) and sleeper car seating. Coach seating is generally comfortable and reasonably decent leg room. Business class usually offers more leg room. All seating is first come first served. No assigned seats. Sleeping car passengers are the exception. Those are First Class and receive some perks, like access to the Metropolitan Lounges in NY, DC and Chicago, early boarding, complementary meals and non alcoholic beverages and reassigned rooms. On one trip First Class was offered wine and cheese after boarding. Meals vary by route. Not all trains offer dining car service.
There are varying types of cars (rolling stock, in rail terminology) used by Amtrak. Single level Viewliner cars on the east coast, primarily. Most Amtrak trains have names as well as numbers for the routes serviced. It's a tribute to the trains of old. My experience is on the Silver Star and Silver Meteor between NYC and Orlando as well as Kissimmee, FL, and the Lake Shore Ltd to Chicago. Then there are bi-level Superliner cars used west of Washington DC to Chicago, Chicago and the west coast, like the California Zephyr and Empire Builder as well as the Auto Train between Lorton, Virginia and Sanford, FL. On Superliners, most of all coach and business class seating and dining are on upper level with a hand full of seats, for handicapped mostly, as well as storage and toilets on lower level; usually four standard toilet and one accessible.
Single level Amfleet coaches and business class cars are a little different. Those usually have one standard and one accessible toilet at one end of the car. Business class sometimes is at one end of the snack/lounge car, partitioned off from others by a curtain. The snack/lounge car has standard fixed tables and seats on one end. Seating is alright, but if you have a little too much tummy, it may be uncomfortable or just unable to sit. I'll mention sleeping car accommodations in a bit. The toilets are on one end of the car and are decent sized, width wise. However, the toilet seat itself is a little small and uncomfortable. Accessible toilets have room for a wheelchair and have handrails, but the seat is on an angle and on leg/knee may bump into the sink/counter. Someone remarked that airline toilets are similar.
There are two different types of sleeping cars and varying accommodations offered.
Superliners and Viewliners have one handicap/accessible bedroom per car with toilet and sink in the room and convertible seats turned into decently sized single beds by the car attendant at night. An upper bunk style bed drops down from the wall - yes you climb up a small step ladder for the upper. All compartments are private and have lockable doors but you are limited to one or two carry-on bags. All other baggage must be checked in or, on Superliners placed in unsecured storage rack on lower deck near the boarding door and toilets. Viewliners also afford seating during the day and bedding for two in each class and style of bedrooms available.
Viewliners/single level sleeping cars
There's the basic Roomette - no frills, basic accommodations with a toilet and sink next to the seat/bed. Somewhat more comfortable and private than regular coach passengers. But using the toilet may be a little uncomfortable for the other traveling companion staying in the room while the other takes care of business. The toilet shares space with one seat as well as the sink and mirror and is a tight fit for all but the super thin folk. The other side seat shares space with a small closet big enough for two coats. To access the upper berth at night, one has to step onto the toilet lid and part of the sink counter. I think this is where people came up with the idea of Tiny Houses.
Standard bedroom also provides seating in a chair and couch during the day and upper/lower bedding for two at night. This is similar to the handicap/accessible room except for the toilet. That is in a small closet inside the room. The toilet is tight for a big person. Also, be careful with the control levers as it doubles as a shower! Yeah, I made a boo-boo... once! The accessible room's toilet is in a slightly larger compartment.
Then there's the suite. Two adjoining bedrooms opened up via removable sliding wall panel providing accommodations for four. Your car attendant has the key to open that wall panel.
Generally, there twelve Roomettes, two bedrooms, and one handicapped/accessible room per car. All bedrooms have a large curtained window with a smaller curtained window above for the upper bed passenger. In room video entertainment was offered at one time but not sure if it's still offered. All offer individual vents, temperature controls and room and reading lights. There's a dedicated car attendant on each car and can be called to your room via buzzer.
Superliner cars are similar but have an upper and lower level and some changes regarding toilets. There's also a light thighs staircase to climb to get to the upper level from the boarding door inside the car. I've traveled only in Superliner accessible rooms in travels between Denver and Chicago on the California Zephyr and Minot, ND and Chicago on the Empire Builder. Superliners are also used on the Auto Train. Some Superliners cars offer viewing dome cars with a snack/bar, attendant and comfortable swivel styled arm chairs.
The handicapped room is only on the lower level, with four roomettes and one family bedroom. There are five bedrooms and ten roomettes on the upper level. Roomettes and family bedrooms do not have toilets but separates private toilets are on each level. A small semi circular stairway is located mid-car next to the boarding door on the lower level. Access to other cars and dining car is only thru the upper level. There is one car attendant per car and can be called via buzzer buttons in the rooms. Accessible room passengers can get their meals brought to them by their car attendant.
Diners on both Superliners and Viewliners are somewhat decent, but similar to the lounge / snack cars, the tables and seating are fixed, booth like. Things were a little snug when I was 280# and men's size 50. Forget that now in my present shape. The food was almost always freshly prepared. I have heard that some routes may have changed the service offered. Please refer to Amtrak for specific trains/routes. Reminder, even though meals for sleeping car passengers are complementary, please be sure to tip your attendants appropriately. I usually gave $2 - $3 per meal.
Amtrak publishes some more helpful information that is worth reading.