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Amtrak to Congress: Service cuts are coming over vaccine rules

The railroad says 5 percent of its workforce has yet to get vaccinated less than four weeks before a deadline

An Amtrak train in North Bergen, N.J. (Ron Antonelli/Bloomberg News)
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An Amtrak executive told Congress on Thursday the railroad doesn’t expect to have enough people to operate all of its trains next month, when a federal coronavirus vaccination mandate takes effect.

Amtrak President Stephen Gardner said about 5 percent of its workforce has yet to get vaccinated less than four weeks before the Jan. 4 deadline.

“We anticipate proactively needing to temporarily reduce some train frequencies across our network in January to avoid staffing-related cancellations — with our plan to fully restore all frequencies by March, or as soon as we have qualified employees available,” Gardner said at a hearing of the House transportation subcommittee on railroads, pipelines and hazardous materials.

Amtrak prepares for possible service cuts as employee vaccination deadline nears

Amtrak last month warned it would send letters to uncompliant workers starting Dec. 8 in preparation for termination Jan. 4. The railroad is expected to publish a revised service schedule next week to reflect the cuts. Gardner said the carrier is still determining what trips will be removed, adding that the railroad wants to give passengers enough time to rebook trips.

Many onboard personnel, including engineers and conductors, retired or left Amtrak during the pandemic, leaving the company stretched thin and unable to resume normal operations. Amtrak is operating about 80 percent of its pre-pandemic schedules and needs to hire more people to add trains.

Amtrak worker shortage slows railroad’s pandemic recovery, expansion plans

Gardner said reductions will be largely felt on the system’s long-distance routes. He said a high percentage of unvaccinated employees are at stations where routes have “relatively small crew bases at intermediate points along multiday long-distance routes.”

Thursday’s hearing focused on the landmark infrastructure bill that puts $66 billion into rail to expand intercity service. The hearing came days after it became public that the company might reduce service when it enforces a federal vaccination mandate that applies to federal contractors. House committee members were mum on the potential service reductions.

Gardner said the company is committed to expanding passenger rail to other cities and playing a larger role in national goals of easing congestion and air pollution.

The carrier is also working to lure new passengers and bring back previous riders. Amtrak ridership has recovered to about 70 percent of pre-pandemic levels, Gardner said.

“It is going to take several years,” he said. “A lot of it depends on the pandemic. A lot of it depends on business travel. We are working hard to grow there.”

Subcommittee Chairman Donald M. Payne Jr. (D-N.J.) called the $1.2 trillion infrastructure law a “once-in-a-generation investment” that will help kick-start more intercity passenger train service and improve safety, efficiency and reliability of the nation’s rail networks.

“In the next few years, I expect we will see new and improved accessible stations, rolling stock and associated maintenance facilities,” Payne said.

The infrastructure package puts $66 billion into rail. It could power the biggest expansion in Amtrak’s 50-year history.

Also Thursday, Amtrak’s inspector general issued a report citing deficiencies in the railroad’s human resources department, including significant vacancies it said are likely to affect Amtrak’s “ability to find and hire qualified candidates in time to meet the company’s hiring needs.”

Amtrak is projecting to add between 2,500 and 3,500 workers this fiscal year as it restores service that was canceled during the pandemic and moves forward on major capital projects aided by the infrastructure bill, according to the inspector general report. That would represent about a 20 percent increase in workforce levels by the end of October.

The infrastructure law also increased Amtrak’s need to fill leadership positions to carry out high-priority capital projects, the report concluded. Amtrak is hiring senior project managers for four of its largest capital programs, including the $4 billion replacement of the Baltimore and Potomac Tunnel and the Gateway program, which includes various projects in the New York area.

A 148-year-old tunnel is the biggest rail bottleneck between D.C. and New Jersey. Here’s the new plan to replace it.

The report noted that rebuilding the workforce could be difficult at a time when 28 of the 64 positions within its recruitment team are unfilled.

“Human Resources employees are taking on workloads that are on average double the industry standard, leading to burnout, causing hiring delays, and diverting managers’ attention from more strategic priorities,” the report said.

In response to the report, Amtrak said it has a plan to fill vacant positions and is prioritizing filling jobs needed to restore train operations.