Amtrak cancels some long-distance travel as cargo strike threat looms

A possible strike by freight rail workers began Monday to disrupt the nation’s passenger railroad, while potentially disrupting commuters and cross-country travel for thousands of Americans if a strike was not averted.

Amtrak announced on Monday that outages will begin on Tuesday on its national network. The passenger railway said it is hauling trains on three long-distance routes “to avoid possible interruption of passengers along the way.”

“These initial adjustments … could be followed by impacts on all long-distance 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 disruption of the rail freight service if a resolution is not reached in the negotiations.”

Amtrak owns and operates most of its tracks in the busy Northeast Corridor between Washington and Boston, but elsewhere it crosses the country on tracks owned by freight lines. Commuter lines linking large cities and suburbs often operate on a similar model. Those freight tracks would likely not be available for passenger trains in the event of a widespread strike.

Any disruption would affect a passenger rail industry already weakened for two and a half years by the pandemic, which hit commuter rail lines particularly hard.

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

Amtrak on Monday announced the cancellation of trains with departures Tuesday on the Empire Builder, California Zephyr and Southwest Chief routes.

Most journeys within the northeastern corridor would not be affected, Amtrak said. However, slight schedule changes are expected on a small number of northeastern region trains serving destinations from Virginia to Boston. The company will allow passengers to change their reservation free of charge for departures scheduled until 31 October

Jim Mathews, president and chief executive of the Rail Passengers Association, said canceling trains earlier in the week makes sense to avoid a scenario where rail passengers could get stuck.

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

Freight railways and the unions representing their workers have been locked in a long dispute over wages and working conditions. After a presidential council recommended a compromise, 10 of the 12 unions involved in the talks signed the deal, but the two largest did not. A cooling-off period ends Thursday night, after which workers could go on strike or the railways could block passenger rail agencies.

As U.S. rail strike looms, White House aides rush to avert crisis

Officials from several regional railway agencies said Monday they were holding internal meetings to determine potential effects and develop contingency plans. A strike is uncertain and the extent of any disruption to passenger services was unclear.

A key question would be whether freight rail freight forwarders, whose job it is to route trains, would continue to operate. Without them, passenger trains would probably not be able to run on freight tracks.

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

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

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

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

“Due to the possible expansive nature and the large number of trains, there are simply not enough buses to provide an alternative service,” Johnson said.

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

Virginia Railway Express officials did not respond to a request for comment on 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 railways to ensure passengers get “the most up-to-date information available” in the event of a strike. .

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

The looming rail labor strike could further assault a national rail network that has been slowing for months, Rail Passengers Association officials said, particularly harming Amtrak passengers.

A battle on the freight tracks that will determine the future of the American passenger railroad

Disruptions to intercity train operations are on the rise and are likely to be increasing as uncertainties persist between staff 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 performance data, with an average delay of 71 minutes. The share of late customers is on the rise, as Amtrak data shows, and delays are getting longer.

Disruptions are most pronounced for travelers on long-distance routes – who are delayed more than half the time – and in parts of the country outside the Northeast Corridor. Railway association officials said the dispute could result in delays or cancellations of popular trains.

Commuter rail operators have been hit hard by the changing working patterns caused by the pandemic. In many cases, they offer more limited service during peak hours, which is no longer suitable for workers with more flexible hours. In Los Angeles, for example, Johnson said Metrolink had around 40,000 weekday shipments prior to the pandemic, a figure that’s now around 17,000.

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