“These initial adjustments … could be followed by impacts on all long-haul routes and most state-supported routes,” Amtrak said in a statement. “These adjustments are necessary to ensure trains can reach their terminals before freight rail service is disrupted if a resolution in negotiations is not reached.”
Amtrak owns and operates much of its own track in the busy Northeast Corridor between Washington and Boston, but elsewhere it crosses the country on tracks owned by freight lines. Commuter lines that connect major cities and suburbs often operate on a similar model. These freight tracks would probably not be available for passenger trains in the event of a general strike.
Any disruption would affect a passenger rail industry already weakened by 2 and a half years of pandemic, which has particularly affected commuter train lines.
Amtrak said it is monitoring labor negotiations closely and “hopes the parties will reach a resolution,” citing the potential effects on passenger operations. Amtrak said it has begun phased service adjustments in preparation for a possible disruption to freight rail service later this week, adding that “such a disruption could have a significant impact on intercity passenger rail service.”
Amtrak announced train cancellations Monday with Tuesday departures on the Empire Builder, California Zephyr and Southwest Chief routes.
Most travel in the northeast corridor would be unaffected, 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 departures scheduled until October 31.
Jim Mathews, president and chief executive of the Rail Passengers Association, said canceling trains earlier this week made sense to avoid a scenario in which rail passengers could find themselves stranded.
“It’s better to cancel some trains now than to send people on the road and leave them stranded in the middle of nowhere because the strike has hit and the train can’t move,” he said. “In the meantime, we are all crossing our fingers so that finally [the railroads and labor unions] come to a settlement.
Freight railways and the unions representing their workers are 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 agreement, but the two largest did not. A cooling-off period ends Thursday evening, after which workers could strike or the railways could lock down passenger rail agencies.
Officials from several regional rail agencies said Monday they were holding internal meetings to determine 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 railway dispatchers – whose job it is to route trains – would continue to work. 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 the potential for disruptions. Scott Johnson, a spokesman for the agency, said five of its seven lines used tracks owned by freight railways, meaning up to 70% of its customers could be affected.
Still, Johnson said Metrolink had little information Monday about what the precise effects might be.
“We largely work from a position of obscurity,” he said.
Normally when Metrolink cancels trains, Johnson said he organizes replacement buses. But in the event of a strike, the agency does not expect to be able to provide alternative transportation.
“Due to the possible expansive nature and high number of trains, there simply aren’t enough buses to provide alternative service,” Johnson said.
The Maryland Department of Transportation said Monday that the CSX freight railroad had notified it 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 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 railroads to ensure passengers get the “best information latest available” in the event of a strike.
Not all commuter rail operations would be affected. RTD, the transit agency serving Denver, said it does not expect its lines to suffer in the event of a strike. The nation’s largest transit operator, New York’s MTA, said its two commuter rail services should also not be affected. New Jersey Transit also did not expect to be affected, although Chicago’s Metra service said customers are seeing disruptions on four lines that contract service through freight rails.
The looming strike by rail workers could further aggravate a national rail network that has been slowing for months, Rail Passengers Association officials said, hurting Amtrak passengers in particular.
Disruptions to intercity train operations are on the rise, with more likely, as uncertainties persist due to staff shortages and rising 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 share of delayed customers is on the rise, according to Amtrak data, and delays are getting longer.
Disruptions are more pronounced for travelers on long-distance 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 rail operators have been hit hard by changing work patterns brought on by the pandemic. In many cases, they offer a more limited service at peak times, which no longer suits workers with more flexible hours. In Los Angeles, for example, Johnson said Metrolink had around 40,000 boardings in the week before the pandemic, a figure that now stands at around 17,000.