Public Release: 

New design renders passenger trains handicapped-accessible, compatible with freight trains

University of Pennsylvania

PHILADELPHIA -- As the deadline for compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act draws closer, the commuter and passenger trains used in large swaths of the United States remain inaccessible to passengers in wheelchairs. Meanwhile, the elevated platforms many regional rail systems have erected to address this problem have created another, forcing bulky freight shipments off the rails and onto some of the busiest roadways in the nation.

Enter an engineering professor from the University of Pennsylvania who has designed a new train car that's fully accessible to disabled passengers, compatible with freight trains and spacious enough to carry nearly 40 percent more passengers. The university has filed for patent protection.

"Current methods for boarding mobility-impaired passengers on commuter and intercity railroad trains are unsatisfactory from almost every perspective," said Edward K. Morlok, a professor of transportation and systems engineering. "The methods are demeaning to those passengers, create problems through delays and staffing requirements and can seriously interfere with freight shipping."

Problems arise when two different levels of platforms are found alongside the same set of tracks, a situation common in the northeastern U.S. Older low-level platforms deny access to disabled passengers, who cannot mount stairs to enter cars. Newer high-level platforms block the passage of freight trains, funneling truck traffic onto congested highways.

"With the ADA mandates coming into play, the conflict between universal accessibility and freight service is likely to worsen," Morlok said. "It's a struggle with serious quality-of-life implications for many of our major cities."

Morlok's answer to this dilemma is a split-level car divided into three sections, with the two ends at the level of a high platform (four feet above the rails) and the longer middle portion accessible from lower platforms (eight inches above the rails). Doors are situated at both levels, opening only at the appropriate stations, and a small lift within the car permits disabled passengers to move between levels.

Because the central portion of the car is lower, a second level can be added above it. To fit within railroad height restrictions in the Northeast, the double-deck levels are nested together to yield full headroom over aisles. The tri-level configuration carries some 130 passengers, compared to about 94 in current-generation cars with similarly wide seats.

"This solution is effective because it allows mobility-impaired passengers to quickly and safely board and exit railcars with little or no special efforts on the part of train crews," Morlok said. "Also, by making low-level platforms accessible to these passengers, commuter rail systems could abolish the high-level platforms where they impede freight traffic."

Morlok estimates that by more rapidly loading and unloading passengers, his design could shave 6 percent off the time it takes a commuter train to run its route and boost ridership 2 to 4 percent. Because fewer staffers would be required to assist passengers as they board and alight, the new design could slash train staffing costs by up to a third.

"All the evidence suggests smart operators will more than offset that by increasing train frequency -- a win-win for labor, the railroad and the public," he said.

Morlok has also developed a second car design whose vestibule features a stairwell that can rotate for access to either high or low platforms. Such a design would save considerable time for trains stopping at both types of platform; currently most such trains have to be reconfigured manually by conductors. It would also boost safety, since exterior doors could be added.

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