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$8 million federal grant to boost Amtrak workforce amid worker shortage

The three-year program will help to train workers as the railroad plans for an expansion in passenger service

The next-generation Acela train arrives at Union Station in 2020 in Washington. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)
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The infrastructure law signed last fall is expected to spur the largest expansion in Amtrak’s history. Federal officials say a critical step toward that growth is to take control of the railroad’s workforce shortage and attrition problem.

The Federal Railroad Administration on Thursday awarded Amtrak an $8 million grant for a worker training program, an investment that could boost the railroad’s recruitment and retention amid a national worker shortage. Amtrak has been struggling to hire and retain workers. In December, the railroad had 1,500 fewer employees than at the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

Amtrak will use the federal grant to launch a three-year mechanical training program this year, setting up training hubs in Washington; New York; Los Angeles; Chicago; Wilmington, Del.; and Beech Grove, Ind.

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

The program is one of 46 projects across 32 states that received $368 million in federal rail grants that aim to modernize the nation’s rail infrastructure and improve freight and passenger service and operations.

“We know that these investments are going to create thousands of high-quality jobs with workforce development and training for rail workers,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said in announcing the grants. The projects, he said, will strengthen national supply chains “and improve passenger rail so that people can get to where they need to be more affordably, more reliably and more quickly.”

The Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements grant program is offered annually. The grant program will benefit from the bipartisan infrastructure law, and its funding is expected to nearly triple to $1 billion a year in the next five years.

Federal officials said Amtrak’s new apprenticeship program will begin this year through the end of the third quarter of 2025. Amtrak will work with labor unions “to nurture a skilled mechanical workforce to maintain its fleet of equipment,” the FRA said.

Amtrak is a top travel choice in the Northeast. With an ally in the White House, it wants trains in the rest of America.

The rail grant comes weeks after Amtrak increased frequencies this summer as it continues to rebound from a pandemic-related slowdown. The intercity passenger railroad is operating at about 80 percent of its normal schedule after deep reductions in 2020. The new summer schedule included the restoration of four long-distance trains to daily service.

The $1.2 trillion infrastructure law signed by President Biden in November puts $66 billion into rail, which Amtrak planned to use for expansion and tackling a backlog of projects. The cash infusion has spurred Amtrak’s biggest plans for growth in its 50 years of existence.

Among other projects that will benefit:

  • Nearly $4.6 million will go to fund a new railroad engineering program at Morgan State University, a historically Black college in Baltimore. The program will be done in partnership with the University of Delaware to train “a new generation of engineers,” Buttigieg said.
  • The Maryland Port Administration was awarded nearly $15.7 million for a modernization project at the Port of Baltimore. It includes the construction of four new tracks that will help meet growing demand at the port, while reducing congestion and speeding up the transit of goods.
  • The North Carolina Department of Transportation is getting nearly $58 million to support surveys and preliminary engineering for a new intercity passenger rail service from Raleigh to Richmond.