train rounding a curve. Perspective is onboard train. A person is visible a car down, leaning their head out and smiling.

I think trains are probably my favorite way to travel.

The world goes by at a brisk pace (usually) but you can still see it all.

I frequently take a commuter rail to New York City, and we live a short drive from the nearest train station.

I also will often take the train down a few stops to visit my mother, or a few more to visit my sister.

My other sister actually lives right by a commuter rail line to Philadelphia, and I’ve taken the train to her as well.

Trains are generally more reliable than buses in the sense that they are more likely to be on time and their routes are much less likely to vary over time.

If you have a very visible condition, be prepared for staring and possibly being asked inappropriate questions. This is a risk you take any time you are out in public, really.

If you have an invisible condition, be prepared for people to assume you are totally healthy and do not need any special treatment. It’s frustrating, but that is part of the reality of our current ableist culture.

If you have a condition that is only visible at times (like epilepsy or my type of Functional Neurological Disorder [FND] symptoms), be prepared for the possibility of people panicking and doing the least helpful thing at the worst possible time out of ignorance. 

Whatever condition you have, it’s best to anticipate people’s behaviors a bit so that you can try to protect yourself from the worst of the ignorance.

My local transit systems

New Jersey Transit has a large public transit system covering much of the state of New Jersey—it is made of buses, trains, light rails, and connections to the PATH (Port Authority Trans-Hudson) system as well as Penn Station in New York City. 

The PATH (light-rail system) goes into NYC and has branches in the larger cities in North Jersey. 

New Jersey Transit's train and light rail map
This map for New Jersey Transit gives you an overview of the statewide rail network. Accessible stations are marked.

The New Jersey Transit light rail is found in two cities—there is a small system set up in the city of Newark, and another one that connects Trenton and Camden, near Philadelphia. 

Philadelphia’s transportation system (SEPTA) connects to New Jersey Transit’s end of the line in the city of Trenton. 

Each of these has a slightly different ticketing system and a slightly different set of rules for disability-based discounts

In many cases, pricing for public transit includes standard fare and a discounted fare for children, senior citizens, and people with disabilities. 

Sometimes the discounted fare is the same across the board, and other times the discounts are slightly different. 

The PATH doesn’t actually have a disability discount, NJTransit has its own disability application system (which gives you a fare-reduction card to display when asked), and the NY MTA has a reduced-fare card for people with disabilities—it is a replacement for the usual MetroCard and also functions as a photo ID.  

These sites may give you an idea of what to look for in your local area.

left side holds a picture of Alison gazing levelly at the camera.  To the right, white text reads "Medical care decisions feel overwhelming?" and in smaller brown text "Click here to learn about my medical care coaching".  The far right of the banner holds the Thriving While Disabled logo

Know before you go

Before you take the train, be sure you know what the rules are for that particular transportation system, and that you know the schedule. 

The ADA provides protection for you as a passenger.

If you are a wheelchair user, you’ll also want to make sure that your particular stop/station is accessible, because some stations in a system may not be. 

For example, while many stops on my train line are accessible (the trains have mounting plates to bridge between the platform and the train), others aren’t.

Focus on a person at a train stop.  you see their back(wearing a black backpack) and the light of an approaching train.  There are only two tracks.
Some train stations don’t have platforms, only two tracks, one going each direction.

The non-accessible stations are at ground level, and you need to climb several stairs in the train to get to your seating. 

These stairs are steep and require some upper-body strength to pull yourself up.

Ensuring that you are able to safely board the appropriate train varies in difficulty. 

The first consideration is the actual challenge of boarding (if you are a wheelchair user, you may need a small ramp to cross the gap between the platform and the station), and the second one is making sure you board the vehicle going in the correct direction that’s going to stop at your destination.  

Sometimes it’s super easy (platform for each direction and only one line with no expresses or anything), but other times it gets more complicated (many NYC subway stops may have multiple lines, some of which are express, on one set of tracks).

Depending on your condition, the challenges may be different, but often the simple things (like taking an extra moment to be sure you’re clear on exactly what you’re waiting for) will be helpful.

In NYC, only 29% of the stations are accessible, so you’ll need to plan every stop you may make very carefully. 

large enclosed train station.  The focus is on the escaalatr down to a platform and the trains on either side, as well as the trains beside them.  A sense of size and potential for overwhelm.
Larger stations can feel overwhelming, but when you focus on your line or track, it gets easier

Also, be sure to think about your comfort on the train. 

Sometimes they run strong air conditioning and other times the cars are a bit warm or stuffy. 

It’s good to bring an extra layer of clothes with you just in case, especially if you are temperature sensitive. 

In the summer, I am more likely to wear a skirt or jeans and carry a light sweater or long-sleeve shirt even when it’s hot out so that I can comfortably handle the hour-long commute to the city.  

I try to ensure that there’s room in my bag to place that extra layer once I’ve arrived.

If you are dealing with balance or vertigo issues, where you sit may have a huge impact on your comfort on the ride.

You also may want to do a short “test run” before you commit to a longer trip, as the motion of the train may exacerbate your symptoms.

Accessible entrances and transitions

When my partner Al was using a cane, we would seek out elevators, escalators, and other alternatives to steps. 

Sometimes finding these seemed to take more spoons than simply doing the climb.

Each new stop that we explored was another place that we need to search for a usable elevator or escalator while fighting through the crowd. 

When he had a cane, people were more likely to give him space, and less apt to glare at us when we took the elevator. 

With how my symptoms have worked, most of the time I have generally found that seeking out the elevators and escalators is more work and stress than just climbing the stairs—for Al, the stairs were painful and exhausting, but the extra walking in search of those features was tiring too.

I have also found that the smells and tightness of the elevator tend to increase my symptoms—so going into New York City with Al was actually much more stressful for me than going in by myself. 

NYC subway station.  The center of the picture is a flight of steps.  The sign above it reads 'exit only' with additional information about connecting lines.
Stairs are plentiful at subway stops. Escalators and elevators take more effort to find.

I only have to worry about finding a seat on the subway (as opposed to two next to one another) and I don’t need to worry about finding escalators and elevators (the exercise is good for me). 

If you’re lucky, the transit map will indicate which platforms are and aren’t accessible. And, if you are dealing with vision or hearing issues, those supports should also be indicated there.  

Like buses, most trains are supposed to have scrolling marquees or light boards indicating the line and stops, as well as audible announcements of every stop along the way.  

Like buses, the quality of these features are likely to vary.  

At least some of these transit systems will also have preferred areas for wheelchair users in particular to board—perhaps so that the employees are more likely to notice them and help them board.  

left side holds a picture of Alison gazing levelly at the camera.  To the right, white text reads "Medical care decisions feel overwhelming?" and in smaller brown text "Click here to learn about my medical care coaching".  The far right of the banner holds the Thriving While Disabled logo

Safely boarding the train

When you travel by train, boarding and deboarding can be tricky for certain conditions. Since they use tracks, there will always be a gap between the platform and train.

Sometimes it’s negligible and a wheelchair can cover the distance—but more often a special ramp is needed to cross over.

When that’s the case, it’s often the responsibility of train employees to provide this bridge.

a train platform.  The focus is on a piece of equipment with an accessibility symbol
Most accessible train platforms will have some type of equipment clearly labeled. However, it generally can only be accessed by employees.

This means that for both boarding and deboarding, an employee has to notice you and take care of that need.

If you are dealing with any condition that’s sensitive to crowding(from claustrophobia to impaired mobility to sensory overwhelm), I recommend doing what you can to avoid travel during especially busy times.

I know that in my area, the trains are full of commuters from about 6:30–8:30 a.m. and 4:30–6:30 p.m.

Personally, I do my best to be settled somewhere during those times, and usually head into the city after 9 a.m. and head home later in the evening. I also try to avoid the last train of the night as it tends to have a lot of drunk folks aboard.

If you are not a wheelchair user but have strength, energy, or other mobility issues and are boarding or exiting at a station that isn’t labeled as accessible, it’s helpful to know why so that you can feel secure in your ability to handle it.

Accessibility features onboard

Generally, trains and subways will have designated accessible seating with the occasional space for a wheelchair.

The requirements for defining this seating are variable, but often they are near the doors to the car and sometimes they have extra space around them.

If you need an accessible seat, others are expected to get up and give you that or those seats.

three masked people stand blocking a designated wheelchair space in a subaway car
If you need an accessible seat or space, you have priority. You may need to ask people to move.

Often accessible seats aren’t the first seats taken by random passengers, though I have noticed a tendency of people to put their luggage in the accessible seating that has a long space between seats.

For people with motion-related sensitivies, be aware that sometimes accessible seating doesn’t face the same direction as you are traveling.

I’ve noticed many trains have seats that constantly face the opposite direction from travel (generally because the train commutes in two directions without turning around, so half the seats always face the destination), and others have the seats positioned facing sideways.

Also, sometimes seats can be flipped to face the direction you are traveling (or to create a set of seats facing one another).

Anticipating your needs in this regard is important, as is being prepared for the possibilities.

If the seating you need is taken, you can ask the conductor for help or ask the people in the seat to move.

It’s often helpful to have something that backs up your statement (like a note from your doctor or a reduced-fare card), but no matter what, you are entitled to that seating once you identify yourself as having a disability.

view of a lightrail or subway car, mostly empty.  A scrolling marquee hangs from the ceiling with the words "next station" visible."
Your car should have a marquee as shown above or a light board against the wall.

To be ADA compliant, your train should also have some form of announcement system to audibly notify you of your stop, and some form of light board or marquee to visibly signal the name of the next stop.

While these aren’t always maintained, they are legally required.

If your train doesn’t have these functions onboard, I encourage you to file a complaint about it—whether or not you specifically needed that resource. This way you can help your fellow disabled folks.

You also don’t need to file the complaint then.

Make a note to yourself and if possible grab a picture of the issue and/or identification number of the car you are in (or the time and route if it’s a train-wide issue) and use the organization’s website to file the complaint later.

left side holds a picture of Alison gazing levelly at the camera.  To the right, white text reads "Medical care decisions feel overwhelming?" and in smaller brown text "Click here to learn about my medical care coaching".  The far right of the banner holds the Thriving While Disabled logo

Safely arriving at your accessible destination

When planning your trip, make sure that your destination is also accessible and that you have the assistance you may need to exit.

Apparently, folks get forgotten sometimes, especially when it comes to getting off at the appropriate stop, so wheelchair users may need to take steps like blocking the doors (which prevents the train from traveling) in order to get off the train at their stop.

Once you are off the train, there should be accessible options for you to continue on to your final destination.

Yes, you can travel safely on a train!

Depending on your condition, your challenges are likely to be different from mine, but I believe in your ability to use your local transit system!

Using my local transit system gives me a great deal of freedom and really lets me explore and travel. I love riding the train (and am very comfortable on the subway), and this is by far my preferred method to travel.

It’s well worth the effort to explore your local transit system and its rules before you use it so that you are prepared to make the best use of it and have minimal surprises on your journey.

There are ADA accessibility requirements that your transit system should be following, but older systems may not be as compliant, and sometimes accessibility features are out of order.

By studying your transit maps and other details, you should have a good sense of what stations are accessible for you.

There will also be features on board the train to assist you, such as accessible seating, light boards, and announcements of each stop.

Whatever rail system is near you, it’s well worth exploring to give yourself more freedom.

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