Amtrak begins canceling trips as freight rail strike looms

Amtrak is canceling trips on some long-distance routes out of Chicago as the deadline for a possible strike by freight rail workers approaches.

Beginning Tuesday, the passenger rail agency will suspend service on routes between Chicago and San Francisco, the Pacific Northwest and Los Angeles. Service will also be suspended on part of a fourth route out of Chicago, between Los Angeles and San Antonio, Amtrak said.

The cancellations are intended to avoid potential disruption if freight rail workers go on strike while making long trips on the California Zephyr, Empire Builder, Southwest Chief and Texas Eagle routes. Although Amtrak workers are not involved in the ongoing contract negotiations, nearly all routes in passenger service outside the northeastern US run on tracks owned, maintained, and dispatched by freight railroads. and a strike could disrupt passenger service.

“These adjustments are necessary to ensure trains can reach their terminals prior to the disruption of freight rail service if no resolution is reached in negotiations,” Amtrak officials said in a statement.

Federal law prohibits a freight rail strike or lockout before Friday, and Congress could step in and block a work stoppage if unions and railroads can’t reach an agreement by the end of the week. But Amtrak is just the latest agency to take preventative action beforehand.

The railroads said they would begin reducing shipments of hazardous materials and other chemicals on Monday to ensure railcars full of hazardous products don’t get stranded along the tracks if trains stop moving. Heads of the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transport Workers Transportation Division union that represents drivers, and the Brotherhood of Locomotive and Train Engineers union that represents engineers, criticized that decision as a move to increase pressure on carriers and Congress to intervene.

Business groups and the White House have pushed the railroads and unions to resolve the contract dispute over concerns about the economic impact of halting shipments of materials so many companies depend on. The Association of American Railroads trade group released a report last week estimating that closing the railroads would cost the economy $2 billion a day.

Most unions representing some 115,000 workers have reached the tentative agreements needed to avoid a strike at the nation’s largest freight railroads, including Union Pacific, BNSF, Norfolk Southern, Kansas City Southern and CSX. The tentative agreements closely followed the recommendations of an Emergency Presidential Board that called for 24% raises over five years, $5,000 in bonuses and an additional day of paid leave per year.

But the two largest unions representing conductors and engineers have resisted because they want the railroads to go beyond those recommendations and address concerns about strict attendance policies that they say make it difficult to take time off and increase the burden. of work after the railroads cut nearly a third of their workforce in recent years.

In addition to carrying Amtrak freight and passenger trains, the freight tracks also carry some Metra trains. The commuter rail agency has not made any changes to service this week, but said a freight strike or lockout could affect schedules.

Nine Metra lines, all lines except Metra Electric and Rock Island, interact with freight railroads in some way, such as being shipped by the railroads. Four of those lines — the BNSF and the Union Pacific North, Northwest and West lines — are directly owned and operated by freight railroads, and Metra said it expects any work stoppage to halt service on those lines as well.

Amtrak may also make changes to additional state and long-distance routes beyond its initial cancellations, the agency said.

Amtrak said it would contact affected travelers, who can reschedule their trip or receive a refund at no additional charge.

Associated Press contributed

sfreishtat@chicagotribune.com

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