Amtrak cancels some long-haul trips as cargo strike threat looms

Amtrak cancels some long-haul trips as cargo strike threat looms
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A potential strike by freight rail workers began disrupting the nation’s rail commuters on Monday, while potentially disrupting commutes and cross-country travel for thousands of Americans if a strike isn’t averted.

Amtrak announced Monday that outages will begin Tuesday on its national network. The passenger railway said it is towing trains on three long-distance routes “to avoid potential passenger disruptions en route.”

“These initial adjustments … could be followed by impacts to all long-haul routes and most state-supported routes,” Amtrak said in a statement. “These adjustments are necessary to ensure that trains can reach their terminals before the interruption of freight rail service if no resolution is reached in the negotiations.”

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

Any disruption would hit a passenger rail industry already weakened by two and a half years of the pandemic, which has hit commuter rail lines especially hard.

Amtrak said it is closely monitoring the labor negotiations and is “hopeful that the parties will reach a resolution,” citing the potential effects on passenger operations. Amtrak said it has begun gradual adjustments to service in preparation for a possible freight rail service outage later this week, adding that “such an outage could significantly impact intercity passenger rail service.”

Amtrak announced Monday cancellations on trains leaving Tuesday on the Empire Builder, California Zephyr and Southwest Chief routes.

Most travel within the Northeast Corridor would not be affected, Amtrak said. However, minor schedule 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 scheduled departures until October 1. 31

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

“It is better to cancel some trains now than to send some people to the road and then leave them stranded in the middle of nowhere because the strike has come and the train can no longer move,” he said. “In the meantime, we cross our fingers that finally [the railroads and labor unions] reach an agreement.”

Freight railroads and the unions representing their workers have been embroiled in a long-running dispute over wages and working conditions. After a presidential board recommended a compromise, 10 of the 12 unions involved in the talks signed the agreement, but the two largest did not. A cooling-off period ends Thursday night, after which workers could strike or railroads could close passenger rail agencies.

As US rail strike looms, White House advisers scramble to avert crisis

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

A key question would be whether freight rail dispatchers, whose job it is to route trains, would continue to work. Without them, passenger trains probably wouldn’t be able to operate on freight tracks.

Metrolink, a seven-line network serving Los Angeles and other Southern California communities, warned customers last week about the possibility of outages. Scott Johnson, an agency spokesman, said five of its seven lines use tracks owned by freight railroads, meaning up to 70 percent of its customers could be affected.

However, Johnson said Metrolink had little information Monday on what the precise effects might be.

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

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

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

The Maryland Department of Transportation said Monday that it had been notified by the CSX freight railroad 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 its three MARC passenger lines serving the District: one to Baltimore and one to Martinsburg, W.Va.

Virginia Railway Express officials did not respond to a request for comment Monday.

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 case of a strike

Not all commuter rail operations would be affected. RTD, the transit agency serving Denver, said it did not expect its lines to suffer in the event of a strike. The nation’s largest transit operator, the New York MTA, said its two commuter rail services were also not expected to be affected.

The looming rail labor strike could further entangle a national rail network that has been slowing for months, officials with the Rail Passengers Association said, hurting Amtrak passengers in particular.

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

Disruptions to intercity train operations are on the rise, and are likely to increase as uncertainties persist amid staffing shortages and increased demand. Amtrak travel has been hampered by worsening problems on freight rail lines, which often share tracks with Amtrak trains.

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

The disruptions are most pronounced for travelers on long-haul routes, who are late more than half the time, and in parts of the country outside of the Northeast Corridor. Railway association officials said the dispute could result in more widespread train cancellations or delays.

Commuter rail operators have been hit hard by changes in work patterns brought on by the pandemic. In many cases, they offer a more limited service at rush hour, which is no longer convenient for workers with more flexible schedules. In Los Angeles, for example, Johnson said Metrolink had about 40,000 weekday shipments before the pandemic, a figure that now stands at about 17,000.

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