Amtrak cancels some long-haul trips as threat of freight strike looms

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A potential strike by freight workers on Monday began disrupting passenger traffic, while commuting and travel across the country could be confused for thousands of Americans if a strike isn’t averted.

Amtrak announced Monday that disruptions to its national network will begin on Tuesday. The passenger railway said it is pulling trains on three long-distance routes “to avoid possible disruption to passengers while driving.”

“These initial adjustments … could be followed by impacts on all long-haul routes and most state-sponsored routes,” Amtrak said in a statement. “These adjustments are necessary to ensure trains can reach their terminals before the freight train service is interrupted if no solution is found in the negotiations.”

Amtrak owns and operates much of its own track in the busy Northeast Corridor between Washington and Boston, but elsewhere it traverses the country on tracks owned by freight lines. Commuter lines that run between major cities and suburbs often operate on a similar model. Those freight tracks probably wouldn’t be available to passenger trains in the event of a widespread strike.

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

Amtrak said it is closely monitoring labor negotiations and “hopes the parties will reach a solution,” citing potential effects on passenger operations. Amtrak said it has begun phased changes to service in preparation for a potential disruption to freight train service later this week, adding that “such a disruption could have a significant impact on intercity passenger rail service.”

Amtrak announced Monday cancellations of trains departing 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 is allowing passengers to change their reservation free of charge for departures scheduled through October 31

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

“It’s better to cancel some trains now than send a few people onto the road and then have them stranded in the middle of nowhere because the strike has struck and the train can no longer run,” he said. In the meantime we are all keeping our fingers crossed that finally [the railroads and labor unions] come to a settlement.”

Freight trains and unions representing their employees are embroiled in a long-standing dispute over pay and working conditions. After a presidential board recommended a compromise, 10 of the 12 unions involved in the talks have signed the deal, but the two largest have not. A cooling off period will end on Thursday night, after which workers can go on strike or the railways can shut out passenger carriers.

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

An important question would be whether freight railway dispatchers – whose job it is to route trains – would continue to work. Without them, passenger trains probably wouldn’t be able to run on freight tracks.

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

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

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

Normally, when Metrolink cancels trains, Johnson said it organizes buses as replacements. But in the event of a strike, the agency does not expect to be able to offer an alternative means of transport.

“Due to the potential expanse and high number of trains, there simply aren’t enough buses to provide alternative services,” Johnson said.

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

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

“We hope, of course, for a solution,” the agency said in a message to passengers. “VRE advises riders to plan alternative commuting options in the event of a strike. We will continue to monitor the situation as events unfold and 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 receive the “most up-to-date information available” in the event of a crash. strike.

Not every commuter rail would 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 country’s largest transit operator, New York’s MTA, said its two commuter train services were not expected to be affected either. New Jersey Transit also wasn’t expected to be affected, though Chicago’s Metra service said customers are seeing disruptions on four lines that have a service contract through freight rails.

The impending rail workers’ strike could further disrupt a national rail network that has been slowing down for months, Rail Passengers Association officials said, injuring Amtrak passengers in particular.

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

Disruptions to intercity operations are increasing, and this is more likely as uncertainties continue from staff shortages and increased demand. Amtrak travel has been hampered by deteriorating problems on freight rail lines, which often share tracks with Amtrak trains.

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

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

Commuter operators have been hit hard by changing work patterns as a result of the pandemic. In many cases, they offer a more limited service during rush hours, which no longer suits employees with more flexible schedules. In Los Angeles, for example, Johnson said Metrolink had about 40,000 weekday boardings before the pandemic, a figure that now stands at about 17,000.

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