Good afternoon and thank you for joining us. Today, we are pleased to announce that the Department of Justice and the National Railroad Passenger Corporation — better known as Amtrak — have reached a comprehensive settlement agreement to ensure compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (the “ADA”). Through this agreement, Amtrak has committed to fix inaccessible passenger rail stations across the Country and to pay $2.25 million to passengers with disabilities who have been denied equal access to Amtrak stations between 2013 and today.
Today’s agreement is a historic achievement for both Amtrak and the people of the United States. Like all people, individuals with disabilities have an unalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Today’s agreement, and its implementation, will mean that individuals with disabilities are one step closer to living in a nation that recognizes their unalienable rights and values them as free people who can enjoy all that his country has to offer.
Access to transportation is critical to all of us, and a key issue for many people with disabilities. Indeed, it is the linchpin of access to the full economic, social, and cultural benefits of our Nation. Rail transportation connects us to family, friends, and opportunity.
Several years ago, the Department of Justice opened an investigation of Amtrak after receiving complaints about the lack of access to train travel for individuals with disabilities. The Department determined that Amtrak discriminated against such individuals by failing to make its passenger rail stations accessible. When Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, Congress required that Amtrak make its stations accessible by 2010. Amtrak did not do so.
Passengers with disabilities have waited long enough. This agreement now puts Amtrak on a course towards opening up its vast rail network to passengers with disabilities. The agreement requires Amtrak to fix stations that are inaccessible to people who use wheelchairs or who have vision or hearing impairments, to train its employees on the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and to compensate people harmed by the lack of access at stations.
The barriers at many of Amtrak’s stations are consequential, inhibiting access to the system for countless people with disabilities. Thomas Morgan is one such individual. In the spring of 2016, Thom — a self-described “outgoing, carefree incomplete paraplegic who uses a wheelchair” — was a senior at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Virginia, when he bought an Amtrak ticket to pay a surprise visit to his parents at home in Fairfax. But what Thom did not know was that the Ashland station platform was entirely unusable to him: there was an inaccessible pedestrian cross-over between the platforms; the north bound platform was too narrow to allow passage for a person using a wheelchair; and the train could only be boarded by climbing stairs. Only when Thom arrived at the Ashland station ready to travel home from college did he realize that he would not be able to board the train.
After Thom graduated — with a mathematics major and film studies minor — and moved home to Fairfax, he wanted to return to Randolph-Macon by train for a series of classes that would allow him to earn the one credit needed to complete a second major in computer science. The Ashland station’s inaccessibility made this impossible. Thom will tell you he likes proving to his friends and peers “that no disability in existence can outmatch a good attitude.” After he raised this predicament to the Department, Amtrak installed a lift on one of the two platforms at the Ashland station and set up a system by which Thom had to contact Amtrak and coordinate travel in advance of any trip (an unequal temporary solution, and one available only to Thom). Even after that, on at least one occasion the last northbound train arrived on the track adjacent to the wrong platform, stranding Thom in Ashland.
Thom wants to travel independently, rather than worrying that he is inconveniencing friends and family. I’m grateful to Thom for his advocacy and that he brought his complaint to our attention. Amtrak’s failure to make its existing intercity rail stations accessible to and usable by individuals with disabilities, as required by the Americans with Disabilities Act, has harmed and continues to harm individuals with disabilities, like Thom, across the country.
The settlement agreement will ensure equal access to Amtrak stations across the country for riders like Thom and countless others. The agreement commits Amtrak to prioritize stations with the most significant barriers to access. Over the next 10 years, Amtrak will design at least 135 stations to be accessible, complete construction at 90 of those stations, and have at least 45 more under construction. Amtrak will also install Passenger Information Display Systems at 97 stations. These Systems provide both audio and visual messages for passengers, and these messages will greatly benefit riders with vision or hearing disabilities.
Amtrak will also train staff on the Americans with Disability Act’s requirements and will implement an agreed-upon process for accepting and handling Americans with Disabilities Act complaints. Under the agreement, Amtrak will have an Office of the Vice President of Stations, Properties & Accessibility to coordinate its compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
To compensate those harmed by inaccessible stations while trying to travel by train, Amtrak will establish a $2.25 million settlement fund. Individuals with mobility impairments who traveled or desired to travel at 78 specified stations with significant accessibility issues may be compensated from the settlement fund.
This agreement reflects the contributions and collaboration of many individuals and organizations, and I want to recognize some of them here.
Amtrak cooperated fully with our investigation and our efforts to resolve this matter. I would like to thank Amtrak for that cooperation. I would also like to thank our partner throughout this process, the Federal Railroad Administration. The Federal Railroad Administration engages in day-to-day regulatory oversight of Amtrak and will continue to do so. I welcome Amtrak’s commitment to bring its system into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act so that all individuals have an equal opportunity to barrier-free rail transportation.
I also would like to thank the National Disability Rights Network (NDRN), which played a key role in raising awareness about inaccessible stations nationwide. In October 2013, NDRN released a report based on its member organizations’ visits to more than 100 stations. Based on this report, the Department’s investigation, and surveys by Amtrak itself, the Department identified pervasive accessibility deficiencies at Amtrak stations across the Country.
I am also grateful to the many Department of Justice attorneys, staff, and others who made today’s agreement possible, including Cynthia McKnight, Rebecca Bond, Matt Donnelly, Katie Wolfe, Kevin Kijewski, David Knight, Felicia Sadler, Celeste Adams-Simmons, Mary Adams, and Anna Young.
Finally, on behalf of our team, I want to again say thank you to Thom and to all of the individuals with disabilities who shared their stories as we worked with Amtrak to craft this remedy. Going forward, we will need the ongoing support and engagement, and the support of all our community and federal partners, to make sure that the targets in this agreement are met. We will also need all of our partners to assist the parties in the coming months as the settlement fund is advertised so that all those eligible to be compensated file timely claims. We look forward to working with Amtrak to implement the reforms in the agreement, and more importantly, to improve the lives of individuals with disabilities, like Thom, who will soon be able to travel more freely and independently.