The changes, Amtrak said, have led to increased policing, chiefly aboard trains, where there was a spike in assaults and petty crimes last year.
“We really focused on getting more uniforms in front of people, which is the number one way we can increase safety. That was and continues to be our focus,” said DJ Stadtler, the railroad service’s executive vice president and chief administrative officer.
Company officials say they have centralized resources in the Northeast, which in addition to increasing the number of officers on trains, includes securing sensitive assets along the corridor such as signal huts and service stations.
As part of that process, the company shifted positions, relocated officers and eliminated unfilled positions, thereby unsettling workers and the union that represents them. In a report to Congress last year, the union said the company planned to cut the police force by about 100 positions, or 20 percent, prompting congressional leaders to intervene.
An appropriations bill signed in December prohibits the company from reducing the number of uniformed officers in the system to below 431. Amtrak says it is complying, though it needs to hire 32 officers to reach that number. As of this week, Amtrak had 399 uniformed officers and was close to hiring 10, officials said.
“These are critical jobs that ensure the safety and security of Amtrak passengers, workers, infrastructure, and communities throughout the nation,” said Rep. Peter A. DeFazio (D-Ore.), chair of the House Transportation Committee. DeFazio has been a vocal opponent of Amtrak’s police-force reduction since the Fraternal Order of Police reported the cuts to Congress last spring.
“Amtrak’s rail network passes through 46 states, and protecting this sprawling network is in the interest of all who travel by rail and surrounding communities,” DeFazio said.
Stadtler said the restructuring was in response to data that showed an upward trend in incidents aboard trains. The Silver Star, for example, a long-distance route from New York to Miami, was experiencing more crime than usual, much of it alcohol-related, officials said. The number of incidents decreased after an officer was assigned to ride the train, Stadtler said.
“We found that redeploying folks from stations to trains increased our presence and increased the safety effectiveness of the entire police force,” Stadtler said.
Disorderly conduct ranks at the top of the offenses aboard trains and in stations, followed by thefts and assaults, according to police data from 2015 to 2019.
Overall, crime in the system is low and was down last year compared with 2018, officials said. But data also shows that the numbers have been increasing in recent years. Amtrak police responded to just over 5,700 criminal incidents in 2019, down from nearly 6,000 the year before. Both years, however, saw more offenses aboard trains and within Amtrak’s jurisdiction than 2017, when there were about 4,100 incidents.
“Part of what we have done over the past five months or so is take a look at all of that data and figure out where our officers are most properly placed to keep the number of incidents down,” Stadtler said.
Amtrak did not provide comparative data about assaults to support its claims that an increase prompted the recent redeployment of police resources.
Amtrak police respond to crime and emergencies at stations and aboard trains, and work with other law enforcement agencies to secure special events and conduct K-9 baggage sweeps and screenings. The force covers the system’s more than 500 destinations in 46 states and the District, stretching across 21,400 miles.
Amtrak President Richard Anderson told lawmakers in November that officer rides are up more than 1,000 percent, year over year.
Relocating resources is easier at places such as Washington’s Union Station, where in addition to Amtrak police there are also transit, local and federal law enforcement officers. An Amtrak officer might spend part of the day patrolling Union Station and riding trains up and down the Northeast Corridor — the railroad system’s busiest.
Amtrak said it is complying with the mandate from Congress.
“We will retain this number of active positions and actively attempt to fill them,” Amtrak spokeswoman Christina Leeds said, referring to the 431-officer level set by Congress. “However, we cannot control attrition, personnel transfers, individuals who choose to leave for personal reasons, or open positions that take time to fill. These exact numbers will always be in flux and will change frequently, particularly at this early stage of realignment.”
The department’s budget this year supports a total of 456 positions, including civilian jobs, down from 534 positions in fiscal 2019.
Amtrak officials said the change reflects reductions in administrative jobs, non-patrol police jobs and the elimination of some unfilled positions. At least 21 officers voluntarily left jobs in the past year, chiefly due to retirement, they said.
William Gonzalez, president of Amtrak’s Fraternal Order of Police, which brought the proposed cuts to the attention of Congress, said the staffing losses jeopardize the safety and security of passengers and employees.
“We are already below the manpower that is needed,” Gonzalez said. “It is a safety issue for the traveling public that uses Amtrak.”
Gonzalez said the officers that have left the agency in recent months through retirement have not been replaced. Although, he said, management has talked about hiring for months.
“We need the police officers in order to provide the security that Amtrak is claiming to Congress that is happening,” Gonzalez said.
At a House hearing in November, Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.) questioned Amtrak’s assertion that personnel losses have not taken a toll on the police department.
“Not to be too alarmist, but we have trains running between Washington and New York City, the heart of what some people with anti-government ideologists consider to be the establishment of the United States. I can walk in those trains without a metal detector,” Malinowski said. “What would happen if somebody opened fire on a train with hundreds of people on the Northeast Corridor? How equipped is Amtrak to deal with that situation?”
The ongoing changes, Anderson reassured Malinowski, put Amtrak in better position to handle any such security threats.
“We have morphed the department from a traditional management-heavy organization to an organization that puts a lot of policemen on trains and in stations,” he said.