Amtrak train cancellations: A rail strike threatens more disruptions

Hundreds of Amtrak passengers had His plans were derailed Tuesday after the railroad canceled more cross-country trains ahead of a potential strike that threatens to cause painful disruptions to the nation’s passenger trains.

Major regional train systems also warned passengers to plan alternative journeys later this week, citing the possibility of rail lines closing on Friday if a strike is not averted. The growing labor dispute between freight railroads and unions representing their workers could disrupt the travel and commuting plans of hundreds of thousands of Americans.

Most Amtrak routes outside the Northeast Corridor and many commuter rail systems, including the Chicago Metra and those serving the Maryland and Virginia suburbs of Washington, use tracks owned by the freight lines. The freight industry has warned that a labor strike as early as Friday would shut down 30 percent of the country’s freight and “stop most passenger and commuter rail services.” No agreement had been reached by Tuesday night.

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Amtrak’s first round of cancellations, announced Monday, began hitting U.S. stations Tuesday, with trips canceled on three long-distance trains connecting Chicago to the West Coast. The carrier announced another round of cancellations for Wednesday on those routes and seven other long-distance routes. The company said it was withdrawing multi-day train trips “to avoid potential passenger disruption en route.”

Patrick Bayer, 33, received an alert around 11 a.m. Tuesday that his train from Chicago to Seattle was cancelled, leading to a race to book a flight to Seattle for a work conference. Bayer had carefully planned a mini-train vacation aboard the Empire Builder before the conference.

“It’s frustrating,” said Bayer, a Philadelphia data analyst, who noted that he was looking forward to his third cross-country train ride and views of the Mississippi River, the Minneapolis skyline and Glacier National Park. With his bags packed, he also had to cancel an early Wednesday flight from Philadelphia to Chicago, where he was to board the train.

“I had to rush this morning and change it to flights, unfortunately, when the train was cancelled,” he said.

The service reduction affects 10 of Amtrak’s 15 long-distance routes, but the company said adjustments are possible on all long-distance routes and most state-funded routes.

Bayer considered rebooking its train travel for Thursday, but said it was clear that disruptions to Amtrak’s Pacific Northwest travel are likely to continue for the rest of the week. After a presidential board recommended a compromise between the transport companies and the unions, 10 of the 12 unions involved in the talks have signed, but the two largest have rejected offers. A federally mandated “cooling off” period ends Friday, opening up the possibility of a nationwide strike or lockout.

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If freight railroad dispatchers, whose job it is to route trains, aren’t working, passenger trains probably wouldn’t be able to operate on freight tracks.

Amid the uncertainty, some regional transportation agencies are alerting passengers to the closures, while others say they are trying to assess the extent of any disruption.

The Maryland Department of Transportation said it was notified by the CSX Freight Railroad of the possibility of a strike beginning 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 in Northern Virginia said CSX and Norfolk Southern have notified VRE of the possibility of a labor strike, which would result in the suspension of all VRE train service until a resolution is reached.

“Of course, we are hopeful of a resolution,” the agency said in a notice to passengers. “VRE encourages passengers to plan alternative travel options in the event of a strike. We will continue to monitor the situation as events unfold and keep our riders informed.”

Metrolink, a seven-line network serving Los Angeles and other Southern California communities, warned customers last week about the possibility of outages. Five of the system’s seven lines use tracks owned by freight railroads, meaning up to 70 percent of customers could be affected.

“We are largely working from a position of darkness,” agency spokesman Scott Johnson said, adding that the agency would not be able to provide alternative transportation, such as buses, in the event of a strike. “Due to the potentially expansive nature and large number of trains, there simply aren’t enough buses to provide alternative service.”

Not all commuter rail operations would be affected. RTD, the transit agency serving Denver, said it did not expect its lines to suffer during 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. New Jersey Transit also did not expect any disruptions.

A strike would also leave much of the Northeast Corridor largely unscathed because Amtrak owns the tracks, though minor schedule changes are likely for a small number of Northeast Region trains serving destinations from Virginia to Boston. Amtrak will allow passengers to change their reservation at no cost for scheduled departures through October 31.

Amtrak said Tuesday that it is closely monitoring labor negotiations over wages and working conditions. amtrak operates the vast majority of its 21,000 route miles on tracks owned, maintained and dispatched by freight railroads.

Amtrak officials said the carrier will operate this week only those services that will have enough time to reach your final destination. Affected passengers include those with travel aboard the Southwest Chief, Empire Builder, California Zephyr, City of New Orleans, Coast Starlight, Crescent, Lake Shore, Silver Star, Sunset Limited and Texas Eagle.

“While we are hopeful that the parties will reach a resolution, Amtrak has now begun phased adjustments,” the company said in a statement Tuesday. “These adjustments are necessary to ensure that trains can reach their terminals before freight rail service is interrupted if no resolution is reached in the negotiations.”

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The possible strike and early train cancellations increased anxiety among commuters.

“We’re traveling from WAS to NWK next week and I’m starting to get a little nervous that our train is going to be cancelled,” a passenger from Maryland. tweeted on Amtrak Tuesday afternoon.

another passenger who had left New York said he was stuck in Chicago, where his train to Seattle was cancelled. “Waited for this for over a year, sad doesn’t begin to describe it lol,” said the passenger. tweeted.

Others asked for more information about the state of the trains later in the weekwhile some disputed why Amtrak was canceling trains scheduled to reach destinations before any strike. Amtrak’s long-distance trains are often late to their destinations.

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 all keep our fingers crossed that we finally [the railroads and labor unions] reach an agreement.”

Interruptions arise as a demand for intercity trains is on the rise as the industry faces uncertainties due to staff shortages.

A third of Amtrak customers experienced delays in July, according to performance data, with an average delay of 71 minutes. 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.

Ian Duncan contributed to this report.

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