In a recent move that will have wide-ranging impact on the rail industry, the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) set new level-entry boarding requirements for the access of passengers with disabilities to passenger railroads, applicable to new and altered station platforms where construction or alteration begins on or after March 2, 2012.  Through a final rule promulgated on September 19, 2011, USDOT amended its Americans with Disabilities Act regulations to require intercity and commuter passenger railroads to provide that disabled passengers can access any passenger cars accessible to non-disabled passengers (76 Fed. Reg. 57924)  This rule does not require railroads to retrofit existing station platforms.

In stations not shared with freight railroads, passenger railroads must provide level-entry boarding to all passenger cars.

In stations where freight railroads run on track adjacent to passenger platforms, passenger railroads may choose among non-level boarding alternatives – including car-borne lifts, station-based lifts or mini-high platforms – to meet a prescribed performance standard.  In order to use a non-level boarding alternative, a passenger railroad must submit a detailed plan to the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) and the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) demonstrating that the selected alternative meets USDOT’s accessibility performance standard efficiently and safely, and in a manner that integrates disabled and non-disabled passengers.  The plan must provide details on deployment, maintenance and operation of the non-level boarding alternative, and FRA and FTA have discretion to modify or disapprove the plan.  If proposing an approach other than car-borne lifts, USDOT also requires railroads to submit a cost/benefit analysis of car-borne lifts versus that other technique.

Compliance with these new level-entry boarding requirements will involve significant cost to passenger railroads.  First, covered railroads must alter design plans for any station platform construction that will begin on or after March 2, 2012.  Passenger railroads that alter or construct station platforms accessing track shared with freight railroads will also incur expensive ongoing work-arounds to the level-entry boarding requirement.