Amtrak and rail cancellations: Agencies brace for shutdowns amid strike threat

Transit systems across the country were on edge Wednesday amid the threat of a strike for freight rail workers, making preparations ahead of possible travel disruptions that could affect hundreds of thousands of rail customers. Amtrak said it is canceling all of its long-distance trains starting Thursday.

Some regional transit agencies said they were preparing for service disruptions as early as Thursday night ahead of a possible shutdown at 1[ads1]2:01 a.m. Friday. They are ending plans to communicate with commuters if a strike is not averted, and some are work with other agencies to refer people to bus alternatives.

The disruptions to passenger systems operating on freight lines will be felt across several major metropolitan areas, including Washington, Chicago and Los Angeles. The strike threat also eliminated most Amtrak service outside the Northeast Corridor, forcing travelers to find other modes of transportation or cancel plans at the last minute.

Amtrak canceled service on all of its long-haul routes starting Thursday, most of which have a daily trip in each direction and provide cross-country connections for thousands of Americans. Between 24 and 28 daily trains will not run while the service is suspended.

“One can only hope there is a resolution before Friday,” said Karen Finucan Clarkson, a spokeswoman for the Virginia Railway Express, which carries commuters from northern Virginia suburbs to the nation’s capital. “We really hope we can run a service on Friday. That would be the best thing for the region.”

A strike would involve workers for the two private railroads that host VRE trains — CSX and Norfolk Southern — and result in the suspension of all service. Several commuter rail agencies and the vast majority of Amtrak routes operate on tracks owned by freight railroads whose workers threaten to strike.

Passenger trains, grain consignments are to be stopped, while a railway strike threatens

Freight railroads and unions representing their workers have been negotiating a new contract as part of a long-running dispute over wages and working conditions, but have not reached an agreement. A federally mandated “cooling off” period ends Friday, opening the possibility of a strike or lockout.

The Biden administration has sought to resolve the labor dispute to avert the possibility of one of the most disruptive strikes in recent American history. The Association of American Railroads estimates that a shutdown could cost the economy more than $2 billion a day and “could idle more than 7,000 trains daily and trigger retail product shortages, widespread production shutdowns, job losses and disruptions for hundreds of thousands of passenger rail customers.”

The labor dispute began to affect intercity operations early in the week. Hundreds of Amtrak passengers had to change or cancel plans as the railway cut cross-country trains on 10 of its 14 long-distance routes before extending the service suspension on Wednesday. The airline said the changes to these multi-day trips, ahead of a possible strike, were necessary to avoid passenger disruption during a route.

The DC-to-Boston corridor, the nation’s busiest, would be largely unaffected by a strike because Amtrak owns the tracks. But Amtrak said more cancellations are likely, including on state-funded, short-haul services that run on freight lines. Amtrak operates most of its 21,000 route miles on tracks owned, maintained and shipped by freight railroads.

Major regional train systems on Wednesday continued to encourage passengers to plan for alternative travel later this week.

Chicago’s Metra service said customers could see disruptions starting Thursday night on lines that run on freight tracks. The agency said BSNF Railway and Union Pacific plan to begin curtailing service during the Thursday evening rush hour in preparation for a work stoppage. Four lines that have contracted service through freight rails will be affected.

Amtrak cancellations, passenger frustrations grow amid strike threat

Metrolink, a network of seven lines serving Los Angeles and other Southern California communities, has been warning customers since last week about the potential for disruptions, and said Wednesday that some disruptions were likely to begin Thursday night. Five of the system’s seven lines use tracks owned by freight railroads, meaning as many as 70 percent of customers could be affected.

“We are coordinating with our rail partners to provide as much alternative service as possible, but there may be complete cancellations on some lines,” the agency said in a service update.

The Maryland Department of Transportation continued to issue notices Wednesday to passengers about the potential for an “immediate suspension” of all service on two of its three MARC commuter lines serving the district — one to Baltimore and another to Martinsburg, W.Va. State transportation officials said MARC provides passengers with a list of bus and other transit options.

“MARC Train is prepared to operate regular scheduled service on the Camden and Brunswick lines should CSX not experience a labor strike by their unions,” said Veronica Battisti, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Transit Administration.

In Virginia, the suspension of VRE service is likely to affect as many as 10,000 daily commuters. The railroad, which until recently carried about 5,200 passengers — down about 70 percent from pre-pandemic levels — saw a surge in ridership after Labor Day as some Metro commuters switched to the system amid a week-long shutdown of several Metro stations south of Reagan National Airport .

“If there is a rail strike, it means for the Blue and Yellow line riders as well as the VRE riders, there will be no rail service as an alternative into the district,” Clarkson said.

Everything you need to know about the looming rail strike

VRE is preparing announcements it will run on its stations Friday if the system is forced to shut down. The agency also coordinates with commuter and local bus systems in Northern Virginia that can be used as alternatives. As of Wednesday afternoon, officials said, the outlook for a the strike was still unclear and it was hoped that it would have no effect on Friday.

“On Thursday afternoon we have to make a decision,” Clarkson said. “If it goes down to the wire, it could be the wee hours off [Friday] morning before we can get anything out … Then we will send out alerts.”

Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.), a rail infrastructure advocate, called the unions’ demands “reasonable” and urged the railroads to work toward a deal that avoids strikes and significant effects on commerce and transportation.

“Given the fact that Amtrak has already canceled a number of its long-distance trains in anticipation of a strike, it doesn’t take much imagination to predict the mess a strike would cause,” he said.

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