On a recent trip to Wisconsin, I had the pleasure of riding Amtrak's Hiawatha service for the first time - from Chicago to downtown Milwaukee. This trip was just under 90 minutes, and got me (and my power wheelchair) safely to the Beer City without any hassle or stress. It was a wonderful ride, and I'm excited to share it with you here.
Tickets & Booking
Amtrak trains have a reserved space for wheelchairs inside the rail car, and you will need a special ticket to reserve one of these spots. Booking is easy on Amtrak.com and, as I have written before, passengers with disabilities receive a 15% discount on Amtrak train tickets - just for being a wheelchair user!
You can book your accessible journey right from the Amtrak homepage, pictured above. If you are traveling with your own wheelchair or will need any special assistance, be sure to select "Passenger with Disability (PWD)" from the drop-down menu on the booking form.
With this menu option selected, you'll be presented with another form that asks for information about your disability and needs. As you'll see in the screenshot above, I select the options that alert Amtrak I am traveling with my own power wheelchair.
Once you have completed this form, click submit. You will then be presented with a list of trains/itineraries to choose from. The 15% disability discount is automatically applied, and is reflected in the prices displayed. Once you have purchased your ticket from the website in this manner, you need not worry about anything else until the day of your departure.
Departure from Chicago's Union Station
Wheelchair access at Chicago's Union Station is quite good, but you'll want to add some time to admire the station's beautiful architecture:
As a wheelchair user, I always get to the train station about 30 minutes before departure. As soon as my train is assigned to a platform on the departures board, I make my way to it.
This will allow the conductor and station staff time enough to set-up the boarding ramp or lift. At smaller train stations, it is best to check-in at the baggage or special assistance desk.In Chicago, a mechanical lift is used to assist wheelchair users in boarding the train. I snapped a photo of this lift, seen to the left. I was able to roll straight onto the lift (it has a ramp that folds down), and the station staff elevated me so that I could roll into the train car.
The same type of lift was used when I disembarked the train in Milwaukee. At many stations around the country, trains are level with the platform, and a metal plate is used to bridge the gap (a "bridge plate"). You can read more about different boarding techniques in the Wheelchair Users' Guide to Traveling by Train.
Wheelchair Accessible Train Car
The entryway and interior doorways of the train are narrow, but are still large enough to accommodate my Quantum Q6 Edge power wheelchair. To ensure your chair will fit, Amtrak advises that it be no larger than 30 inches (76 cm) wide and 48 inches (122 cm) long. Fortunately, I've not found a standard issue power wheelchair that exceeds those dimensions - except, of course, the gigantic tank-style wheelchairs.
The trains used on the Hiawatha service sport an interior similar to those found aboard the Amtrak trains in the northeast United States. The pictures below showcase the dedicated wheelchair area, which was more than enough space to park my power wheelchair.
Although there is no way to secure your wheelchair to the floor, I've never had an issue with the chair sliding across the floor. Trains do not stop quickly, and the ride on rails is consistent and smooth.
There is one strap attached to the wall, which you could wrap around the seatback of your chair or attach in some other fashion. I have never used this, and always feel safe on the train.
Power ports are accessible and located underneath the windows, so you'll never run out of power for your mobile device or laptop. I was also happy to discover that the Hiawatha trains now feature complimentary Wi-Fi service.
You can click the image to enlarge, and assess whether or not this facility will work for you. I have been able to make it work for myself, but others may have more difficulty. At the very least, I can say that it is larger than the wheelchair accessible lavatories on airplanes!
On this short train ride, the bathroom remained clean throughout the journey. But on longer trips, they can become a bit dirty. I wish people would treat public facilities with more respect.
Arrival in Milwaukee
As we departed Chicago, I switched on my iTunes travel playlist and settled in for a nice ride. The Hiawatha service to Milwaukee is fairly quick, at around 90 minutes. Between Chicago's Union Station and the Intermodal Station in downtown Milwaukee, there are only a few stops - Glenview, IL; Sturtevant, WI; and the General Mitchell Milwaukee International Airport.Before I knew it, we had arrived in Milwaukee. Before I got off the train, the excellent conductor snapped a selfie with me (pictured at left). He had checked up on me multiple times throughout the short journey, and I was grateful to meet someone so friendly and dedicated to their work. Way to go, Amtrak!
Within a few minutes, station personnel had helped me disembark using a lift similar to the one in Chicago. I proceeded to make a quick stop in the station's bathroom (it is very accessible). I was staying at the brand-new SpringHill Suites Milwaukee Downtown, and it was only a few blocks away - I decided to roll that short distance.
If you're traveling a bit farther from the station, multiple city routes stop within a 2-block radius. These include bus numbers 57, 80, 915, 916, 965 and 966. Megabus also serves the Milwaukee Intermodal Station. To learn more about getting around the city, read my article on the wheelchair accessibility of Milwaukee public transportation.
I was extremely impressed with the Amtrak service offered between Chicago and Milwaukee. Although I only intended to take the train in one direction, its convenience won out and I traveled back to Chicago with Amtrak as well.
The station staff and onboard crew were all very friendly, and paid special attention to me throughout the journey. It is always nice to take the train, as it is oftentimes so much easier than flying. No TSA pat-downs, expensive baggage fees or inaccessible lavatories to worry about!
If you're ever planning to take a trip between Chicago and Milwaukee, I highly recommend you give the Amtrak Hiawatha service some serious consideration!