Why do we travel by train? Is it for the fun and adventure of retracing the routes of our forefathers? Is it for the romance and intrigue of the confined spaces? Is it for the safety and security of a time-honored tradition? We believe it's for any and all of the above! Whatever your reason for choosing to ride-the-rails, train travel is relaxing, practical and offers a social aspect unmatched by any other method of transportation.
But along with this romantic method of travel come additional issues for the mobility-challenged. Confined spaces and limited room means you need to plan ahead in order to enjoy the trip to its fullest. This article offers some basic areas that you need to consider when choosing a carrier.
If you have multiple options available to you (some countries have only one rail system), try to choose the carrier that offers the most services tailored to your mobility needs. Some carriers offer a complete list of services from boarding assistance to accessible sleeper cars, while others may offer only a few retrofitted cars with wheelchair tie-downs. As always, ask many questions ahead of time so that you have the most options when you make your final booking.
Special services may vary from one region to another, depending on a number of criterions; the cars on your particular train, the facilities at the various stations along your route and even your carrier's policy on accessibility.
Ask if your car has doorways that are wide enough to permit access while you are seated in your wheelchair. Ideally, your room should have enough space to maneuver the wheelchair on both sides of the door. The best accessible rooms include those with door handles, latches and other switches mounted at a height that permits you to use them while you are seated in your wheelchair. These items should be operable with one hand and should not require tight grasping or conversely, fine finger control.
Washrooms should also be large enough to accommodate you and your wheelchair along with an escort or attendant. If such a car is not offered, the washroom should at least be accessible to you and your wheelchair.
If you have additional needs that require the services of an escort, ask your carrier about special rates and allowances. Some carriers offer free fares for escorts, while other may offer similar promotions for different destinations. At the very least, most carriers will offer your escort a reduced rate for the trip.
You should also check your carrier's policy services your escort will be required to perform on your behalf. For example, some carriers require that your escort assist you in boarding, disembarking and moving about the train -- regardless of whether the carrier offers special boarding assistance. This is of particular importance if your escort is elderly or unable to assist in such a manner.
In all cases, you should be prepared to present valid documentation that supports your need for an escort (typically, a medical certificate, doctor's note or an ID card issued by a qualified organization). Too many unscrupulous travelers have taken advantage of this service and most carriers want to ensure fairness and equity for all.
Examine your ticket and itinerary carefully once you receive it. Ensure that you are comfortable with its policies and provisions so that you are not surprised at your various stopovers (especially when traveling overseas). Some European trains travel through countries that are not listed on a general rail pass -- in certain cases, you may be required to pay the full fare for that portion of the trip. On some trains, for example, ticket holders traveling from Venice to Munich will pass through Austria, which is not covered by the rail pass.
Ask your carrier if the departure and arrival stations are equipped with high-level platforms or wheelchair lifts. This will make it much easier to get on and off your train. If the departure or arrival station does not have a wheelchair lift, let the carrier know the weight of your mobility vehicle. Some carriers impose maximum weight and size restrictions to ensure adequate storage. Typically, most 3-wheeled scooters will be acceptable. Some 4-wheelers may exceed imposed size/weight limits and may not be acceptable (in such a case, you may wish to rent a mobility vehicle from Scootaround).
Most carriers will do their best to accommodate special-needs passengers and the extra luggage they may require (e.g. scooter, wheelchair, oxygen tanks, etc.). If you have additional luggage requirements, talk with your carrier in advance. This will allow them to be more prepared and to make the boarding process as quick and pleasant as possible.
Most carriers will allow you to check your scooter, wheelchair or power chair at no extra cost. If you decide to check your mobility vehicle, ensure that you have made arrangements for some sort of conveyance for stops along the way.
Most carriers allow people with restricted mobility to board the train ahead of other passengers. Carriers generally ask that you come to the station at least one hour before the train's departure. The additional wait time will be suitably comfortable if you're traveling in an accessible car. If you would rather not wait in your car until the train rolls, ask if you can wait in the dining or lounge car (where there is typically more room).
Today's luxury train cars offer you a chance to travel in a relaxed and comfortable manner. If you're not planning on de-boarding, then you should be free to dress as you would at home. Comfortable shoes, loose clothing and an extra sweater may work well for you.
If your trip involves spending one or more nights on board the train, look for a carrier that offers sleeper cars with your own private bedroom, or if possible, your own shower access. You will have a much more enjoyable time if you do not have to leave your car to use the facilities (morning or night). And if the soothing sound of the railway tracks keeps you up at night, remember to bring along a set of earplugs.
Inquire about the added room required for your scooter or wheelchair. Some cars are large enough to accommodate this, while others may force you to leave your mobility vehicle in storage or in another car. As with any specialized lodging, be sure to reserve your sleeper car well in advance.
One of the benefits of train travel is its peaceful and unhurried nature (bullet trains notwithstanding). Look out either side of the train and you're likely to see the most incredible scenery passing by, whether desert, mountain, coast or prairie. Unlike air travel times (where you can leave half-an-hour late but still arrive 20 minutes early because of the tail wind - someone has to explain that one to me again), train travel speeds are rather finite. This forces us to relax and take a more philosophical approach to the delays. As with any type of travel, be prepared to deal with cancellations and other setbacks. There's usually not much you can do other than sit back and enjoy the wait (remember to pack a book or bring along your favorite music to pass the time).
If you're planning to use an accessible van or vehicle at your destination, enquire about your carrier's services in this regard. For example, if your traveling between Washington, DC and Orlando, the Auto Train allows you to ride in a typical Amtrak passenger car, while your car is stored in enclosed car carriers at the end of the train.
Never leave your luggage unattended or unguarded on the train or in the station. It only takes a moment for your bag to go missing. Whether traveling at day or night, secure your baggage to a rack or bench with an appropriate lock or tie-down. Always keep your valuables close to you (if you're extra cautious, consider keeping them in a concealed money belt while you sleep).
Also remember to keep an eye on your rail pass. Depending on your carrier, this item may not be replaceable. If you're concerned, consider purchasing trip insurance. While such insurance may not replace your pass immediately while traveling, you may be eligible for a refund for the unused portion upon return.
So whether you're in for the ambience, relaxation, romance or the adventure, enjoy your time on the rails. Take some time to meet your fellow passengers, gaze out the window, or simply get lost for a little while as you travel the route so many have gone before.