Wheelchair Accessible Train Travel
Overview of Wheelchair Accessible Train Travel
I am in a wheelchair…can I travel by train? Absolutely! And in many cases it is the most accessible way to travel! That being said, some routes have multiple barriers to step-free travel. There could be steps to get to the platform you are departing from, steps to get onto the train, no wheelchair accessible bathroom on the train, and steps when you arrive at the station.
Overall though, I love to travel by train. It is a relaxing, comfortable way to see lots of the countryside. There is no traffic to deal with, roundabouts to master, or aggressive drivers to avoid. You won’t have to deal with the hassles of a security checkpoint like you do at an airport, and you can buy your ticket last minute without paying an arm and a leg. Because many people bring bicycles and strollers onboard, the setup is much better than planes for bringing a wheelchair onboard than for a plane. Many train stations are located in the center of town so you don’t have to take a taxi out to the airport. Space on the trains is at less of a premium than planes so there is much more space to move around on a train than on a plane. You can stay in your chair or sit in one of the large seats. Some train cars will have tables that your group can sit at and there will be food and drink onboard. Many trains will have a car or two with a wheelchair accessible toilet.
Finding train times
Regardless of which country you are traveling in, the German Deutschbahn website is the best place to view train schedules:
Booking Wheelchair Accessible Train Travel
Booking a train ticket at the last minute won’t cost you astronomical fees like booking a plane at the last minute does. Nevertheless, you can save some money by booking a train a week or so in advance. In addition, train companies in some companies can require up to 24 hours advanced notice to arrange for special assistance to help with wheelchairs or bags.
Most of the time, when I arrive in a city by train I will book the departing train ticket before leaving the station. You can also buy train tickets in advance by calling the individual train companies using the links listed below. You need to be aware that buying a ticket does not necessarily reserve a specific seat on the train, so be sure to ask that they reserve an accessible seat for you.
Reserving a Seat
The wheelchair accessible spot may be in first class or second class. If there is only a first class option, you will usually only have to pay for a second class fare. This reduced price will apply to you and sometimes one other person. The discount generally will not apply to the rest of your family traveling with you.
At the Train Station
Train stations can be grouped into two types: stations where trains arrive in one end and depart from the other end, and stations that trains enter and exit from the same end (called terminus or terminal stations). The difference is important for people with disabilities, because terminal stations will generally have step-free access to all platforms, while stations where trains pass through may or may not have step-free access to the platforms. In pass-through stations there will either be 1) a tunnel going under the tracks that can be accessed by an elevator or ramp, 2) a walkway going over the tracks that can be accessed by an elevator or ramp, 3) a path at the end of the station where wheelchair users, luggage carts, and train company equipment can roll over the tracks, or 4) a walkway or tunnel that can only be accessed via stairs.
As you might expect, train stations in bigger cities are generally more accessible than those in smaller towns. One of the reasons for this is that the bigger cities are more likely to have terminus-style stations where all platforms can be reached without having to climb steps. Additionally train stations in smaller towns may not have any personnel to assist you.
Many train stations have employees to help with your bags. When you book your ticket, you can request for assistance with your bags (as well as assistance getting on and off the train).
Train Station Handicapped Accessibility
You can look at a train station on Google Earth or Google Maps to determine if it is a terminus-style station or not. In the bigger train stations, the trains pull in and out of the station in the same direction. In these stations, you will almost always be able to reach the platform because there are no train tracks to cross to exit the station (although you may still need help to actually get onto the train). They will look like this:
The other type of stations have train tracks leading out in both directions. They look like this:
These train stations may or may not be good for wheelchair accessible train travel. If they are not accessible, you will get off of the train and you will need to take a flight of steps down from the platform, then a tunnel going under the tracks, then a flight leading up to the station. If they are accessible, there will be an elevator to lead into the tunnel, or you can go to the end of the platform where a ramp will lead to a paved path that they use to transport baggage across the tracks. The elevators might be freight elevators that require a key. When you buy your ticket, be sure to let them know where you will be getting off and they can have someone waiting who will provide assistance with ramps, wheelchair lifts, and/or elevator access.
Getting On and Off
Some of the steps onto the train can be very high (about double the height of a normal step). Many wheelchair accessible train travel routes will have staff who can help you get on and off the train. They will either use a portable ramp or a portable wheelchair lift. Most of these ramps and lifts are kept at the platform, however some trains will have ramps kept on board for use at stations that do not have ramps. Generally the ramps and lifts at the station are chained to a post or a wall, so you will need a train station employee to unlock it and help you onto the train. Some of the more modern stations will have level access onto the train and you won’t need a ramp or a lift.
While on the Train
Trains are not identified by train numbers, rather they are identified by the city that then end in. Thus in order to know what train to get on, you not only need to know the place you are getting off, you also need to know the place the train ends (known as the terminus or terminal). While on the train, keep track of where you are so that you make sure you don’t miss your stop. When you pass through a city, there will be a large sign facing the train with the name of the station.
Spaces where you can stay in your wheelchair are generally near an accessible toilet. If you do not book one of these spaces but have difficulty walking, you may want to request a seat near the bathroom rather than in the middle of the car.
At some point in your journey, a train employee will approach you to check your ticket. When you are crossing the border into a new country, you will not need to get off the train. Instead, staff members will walk through the train while it is traveling near the border to check passports.
Disabled Train Travel Links by Country
Republic of Ireland
Attica (Greece-Italy, Finland Germany, Scotland-Belgium)
Thalys (Belgium, France, Germany, Netherlands)
Lyria (France, Switzerland)