Our trip was delightful, and we were rather proud to have accomplished it. But I will say it didn't provide enough time in DC for a more leisurely time at the museum. We left at 8am and arrived in DC at 1:30pm. We had to leave DC at 6:45pm, and got back to Trenton at half past midnight. It was a long day, and put a strain on our bodies. If you do this trip, think through the physical strain of traveling for such a lengthy period.
Access Link: NJ Transit operates this paratransit service that parallels local bus lines. They provided my friend with a ride to the transit center. You can find more information at the link I provided, but basically they provide a comparable service to local bus transportation for people who cannot use buses. We've had good service from them. They require a reservation, and there is a short window of time to meet the Access Link driver at the curb. They will flex if they can (and you call), but they are serving a large number of people.
SEPTA: We took a SEPTA train from the Trenton Transit Center to the 30th Street station in Philadelphia. There are easy elevators leading to the train tracks. As soon as the train arrived at the track, we found a conductor and let him know we needed assistance. He provided a ramp to cover the gap between the train and the platform. An accessible place is reserved in each car for wheelchairs, and the conductor made sure I was able to sit with my friend. The SEPTA train is bumpy at times, rocking back and forth, which made it uncomfortable at times. But the conductors were professional, courteous and kind at all times. The cost was $8.75 for me and $4.25 for my friend. On the way back we paid $10 and $5--it was too late at night and we had to pay a small premium for our tickets on the train.
MegaBus: From Philadelphia we took Megabus to Washington D.C.'s Union Station. The Megabus picks up at the 30th Street Station in Philadelphia, just outside the station at the bus loop. Several other companies use this area, and there are signs on the pavement to show where to line up. The information booth inside the station can tell you where the bus loop is--it's not hard to find once you've found it once.
30th Street Station has easy elevators and ramps to get to restrooms and train platforms. The walk to the MegaBus stop is across several lanes of traffic, and we found it tricky, especially at night. Traffic doesn't stop for red lights there, and cars often blocked curb cuts leaving us stranded in the street until they moved. That being said, there are curbcuts, crosswalks, and crossing lights all the way across--just be very careful across this intersection.
We called MegaBus a week in advance to reserve our tickets and seats. We let them know that we would be traveling with a power chair and that my friend could not transfer to a seat. The reservationist was very helpful and professional on the phone. I'm not sure if they pass the information on to their drivers, but it seems that the protocol is to cut to the front of the line and let the dispatcher know that you have a power chair and will need accommodation. Each MegaBus had room for one wheelchair, but they had to make the room by folding forward six bus seats. They had a ramp and the drivers knew how to operate the tie downs. The spot available is next to the restroom on the bus, so be aware that sometimes there is an odor. I was able to sit near my friend, but we both had to twist around quite a bit to talk. The drivers and dispatchers were all very helpful and courteous once they realized we were there.
MegaBus also had electrical outlets and free wi-fi on both buses. For folks traveling with laptops, etc., this is a real bonus. Also, MegaBus only cost $27 round trip per person, compared with an exorbitant price for Amtrak (that didn't include wi-fi). The ride was very smooth, without a lot of bumps.
The one disadvantage to MegaBus over a train is that the bus runs a bit late, depending on traffic. This meant that our 45 minute window to catch the SEPTA train back to Trenton narrowed to a 17 minute window. We weren't able to get back across the street quickly enough to catch the train, and had to wait an hour for the next one. At the end of the day, this was a bit tough, as we were already tired. And it meant that Access Link was no longer operating, and we had to call around for a ride. Make sure you have that plan B in place if you're arriving late at night.
Union Station: Union Station was a maze to navigate. We lost track of how many different elevators we rode to get down to the lower level for lunch and then out to the Metro station to get to museums. Many of the elevators did not go to all levels, and many of the elevators were hidden behind service doors for restaurants, etc. We had to ask a lot of people to get around, and most of them didn't know either. We lost an hour easily navigating this station. If I had to do it over again, I wouldn't try to do much inside Union Station if I was short on time.
The Metro: DC's subway system was much easier than I feared. There were elevators leading to the platforms, accessible ticket gateways, and clear signage. We took the red/green line to the blue/orange line to get from Union Station to the Smithsonian Station, with a transfer at Metro Station. This sounds a lot more complicated than it actually was.
There is a gap between the platform and the train, but my friend managed it without a ramp. The trickiest piece of the Metro was that the stops are very quick--about a minute for people to get on and off. While there are signs everywhere asking people to let seniors and disabled folks to board first, nobody pays any attention. Able bodied people cut us off right and left, and we had to shove our way onto trains. I'm practicing my look of withering disdain for those who block wheelchair users. Our DC trip gave me plenty of practice. Our biggest fear was getting separated, which we solved by me blocking the door from closing with my body while my friend got on and off. The train won't move if the doors are open, and the doors won't close if you're in the way. There were no conductors available to assist, so this seemed the only practical solution.
The elevator at the Smithsonian Station is in an odd place, and looks rather like a phone booth sticking out of the ground (or like a Tardis, if you're a Dr. Who fan). It is not part of any building, and is located at the corner of 12th and Independence. You can take the elevator straight down to the train platform, but best to stop at the mezzanine if you need to get to the other side of the tracks or need to look at the map or purchase tickets.
Metro trains run every 5 minutes or so, which made it less stressful when we missed one due to crowding, people's rudeness, or uncertainty.
The trip back was uneventful, although we were an hour later than we hoped as the MegaBus had a few delays, causing us to miss our train. My friend had a back up ride arranged, and I took a taxi home. The Trenton Transit Center is well lit at night, with trains running even in the wee hours. I had a guy start hassling me a bit at the 30th Street Station in Philadelphia, but security popped over and moved the guy along.
Overall this trip worked. I slept very late today, and I'm sure my friend did too. Our one regret was that we only had an hour and 40 minutes at the museum. We'll go back, but we will be looking at how we can stay a night or two to give us more time once we're there. Please feel free to contact me by email if you're traveling any of these services and want more information. It was a good experience, and nice to know we cold use public transit for longer trips.