Amtrak cancels some long-distance trips as freight strike looms

A possible strike by freight train workers began disrupting the nation’s passenger trains Monday, potentially rattling commutes and cross-country trips for thousands of Americans if a strike is not averted.

Amtrak announced Monday that disruptions will begin Tuesday on the national network. The passenger railway said it is pulling trains on three long-distance routes “to avoid possible passenger disruption while on route.”[ads1];

“These initial adjustments … may be followed by impacts on all long-haul and most state-supported routes,” Amtrak said in a statement. “These adjustments are necessary to ensure that the trains can reach their terminals before the freight train service is interrupted if a solution in the negotiations is not reached.”

Amtrak owns and operates much of its own track in the busy Northeast Corridor between Washington and Boston, but elsewhere it crosses the country on tracks owned by freight lines. Commuter lines that run between major cities and suburbs often operate on a similar model. These freight tracks are likely to be unavailable for passenger trains in the event of a widespread strike.

Any disruption would affect a passenger rail industry already weakened by 2 1/2 years of the pandemic, which has hit commuter trains particularly hard.

Amtrak said it is closely monitoring the labor negotiations and is “hopeful that the parties will reach a resolution,” citing potential effects on passenger operations. Amtrak said it has begun incremental adjustments to service in preparation for a possible disruption of freight train service later this week, adding that “such disruption could have a significant impact on intercity passenger trains.”

Amtrak Monday announced train cancellations with Tuesday departures on the Empire Builder, California Zephyr and Southwest Chief routes.

Most travel within the Northeast Corridor will not be affected, Amtrak said. However, minor route changes are expected on a small number of Northeast Regional trains serving destinations from Virginia to Boston. The company will allow passengers to change their reservation free of charge for departures scheduled until October 31

Jim Mathews, president and CEO of the Rail Passengers Association, said it makes sense to cancel trains early in the week to avoid a scenario where rail passengers could be stranded.

“It’s better to cancel some trains now than send some people out on the road and then have them stranded in the middle of nowhere because the strike has hit and the train can’t move anymore,” he said. “In the meantime, we’re keeping our fingers crossed for it eventually [the railroads and labor unions] come to a settlement.”

Freight railroads and unions representing their workers have been locked in a long-running dispute over wages and working conditions. After a presidential panel recommended a compromise, 10 of 12 unions involved in the talks have signed the agreement, but the two largest have not. A cooling-off period ends on Thursday evening, after which workers can strike or the railways can shut out passenger rail agencies.

As US rail strikes loom, White House aides are scrambling to avert crisis

Officials at several regional rail agencies said Monday they were holding internal meetings to determine the potential effects and to develop emergency plans. A strike is not certain and the extent of any disruption to passenger services was not clear.

A key question would be whether the freight railways’ dispatchers – whose job is to route trains – will continue to work. Without them, passenger trains could not run on freight tracks.

Metrolink, a network of seven lines serving Los Angeles and other Southern California communities, warned customers last week of the potential for disruptions. Scott Johnson, a spokesman for the agency, said five of the seven lines use tracks owned by freight railroads, meaning as many as 70 percent of customers could be affected.

Still, Johnson said Metrolink had little information Monday about what the exact effects might be.

“We are working very much from a position of darkness,” he said.

Normally when Metrolink cancels trains, Johnson said it organizes buses as a replacement. However, in the event of a strike, the agency does not expect to be able to provide an alternative means of transportation.

“Due to the potentially expansive nature and the high number of trains, there simply aren’t enough buses to provide alternative service,” Johnson said.

The Maryland Department of Transportation said Monday that freight railroad CSX had notified it of the possibility of a strike starting Friday. The state said a strike would result in the “immediate suspension” of all service on two of the three MARC commuter lines serving the district — one to Baltimore and another to Martinsburg, W.Va.

Virginia Railway Express of Northern Virginia said CSX and Norfolk Southern have notified VRE of the potential for a labor strike, which will result in the immediate suspension of all VRE train service until a resolution is reached.

“We are of course hoping for a solution,” the agency said in a message to passengers. “VRE advises riders to plan for alternative commuting options in the event of a strike. We will continue to monitor the situation as events unfold and will keep our riders informed.”

DJ Stadtler, executive director of the Virginia Passenger Rail Authority, which oversees passenger service in the state, said the authority is working with Amtrak and freight railroads to ensure passengers get the “most up-to-date information available” in the event of a strike.

Not every commuter rail operation will be affected. RTD, the transit agency that serves Denver, said it did not expect its lines to suffer in the event of a strike. The nation’s largest transit operator, New York’s MTA, said its two commuter trains were also not expected to be affected. New Jersey Transit also was not expected to be affected, although Chicago’s Metra service said customers are seeing disruptions on four lines that contract with freight rails.

The looming strike for rail workers could further snarl a national rail network that has slowed for months, Rail Passengers Association officials said, and particularly hurt Amtrak passengers.

A battle for freight tracks that will determine the future of American passenger rail

Disruptions to intercity train operations are increasing, and more are likely as uncertainty persists amid staffing shortages and increased demand. Amtrak trips have been hampered by worsening problems on freight lines, which often share tracks with Amtrak trains.

A third of Amtrak customers experienced delays in July, according to on-time performance data, with an average delay of 71 minutes. The percentage of customers delayed is increasing, Amtrak data shows, and delays are getting longer.

The disruptions are more pronounced for travelers on long-haul routes – which are delayed more than half the time – and in parts of the country outside the Northeast Corridor. Union railroad officials said the dispute could lead to more widespread late trains or cancellations.

Commuter train operators have been hit hard by changed working patterns caused by the pandemic. In many cases, they offer more limited service during peak hours, which no longer suits workers with more flexible schedules. In Los Angeles, for example, Johnson said Metrolink had about 40,000 weekday boardings before the pandemic, a number that is now about 17,000.

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