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Amtrak cancellations, passenger frustrations grow amid strike threat

Major regional train systems also were warning passengers to plan for alternate travel later in the week

An Amtrak passenger train departs from Union Station in Chicago. (Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg News)
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Hundreds of Amtrak passengers had their plans ruined Tuesday after the railroad canceled more cross-country trains ahead of a possible strike that threatens to bring painful disruptions to the nation’s passenger rail.

Major regional train systems also warned passengers to plan for alternate travel later this week, citing the potential of rail lines shutting down Friday if a strike isn’t averted. The escalating labor dispute between freight railroads and the unions representing their workers could alter travel and commuting plans for hundreds of thousands of Americans.

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

Freight rail strike threatens supply chains, prompting White House planning

Amtrak’s first round of cancellations, announced Monday, began to hit 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 pulling the multiday train trips “to avoid possible passenger disruptions while on route.”

Patrick Bayer, 33, received an alert about 11 a.m. Tuesday that his train from Chicago to Seattle was canceled, prompting a dash 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 is frustrating,” said Bayer, a data analyst from Philadelphia, who noted he was looking forward to his third cross-country train trip and the 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 scramble this morning and switch it around to flights, unfortunately, when the train got canceled,” he said.

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

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

Amtrak cancels some long-distance trips as freight strike threat looms

If the freight railroads’ dispatchers — whose job is to route trains — aren’t working, passenger trains probably couldn’t operate on freight tracks.

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

The Maryland Department of Transportation said freight railroad CSX notified it about the potential for 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.

The Virginia Railway Express in Northern Virginia said CSX and Norfolk Southern have notified VRE of the potential for the labor strike, which would result in the suspension of all VRE train service until a resolution is reached.

“We of course hold out hope for a resolution,” the agency said in a notice to passengers. “VRE recommends riders plan for alternative commute options in the event of a strike. We will continue to monitor the situation as events unfold and will keep our riders informed.”

Metrolink, a network of seven lines serving Los Angeles and other Southern California communities, warned customers last week of the potential for disruptions. Five of the system’s seven lines use tracks owned by freight railroads, meaning as much as 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. “Because of the possible expansive nature and the high number of trains, there simply are not enough buses to provide alternative service.”

Not every commuter rail operation would be affected. RTD, the transit agency serving Denver, said it didn’t expect its lines to suffer during a strike. The nation’s biggest transit operator, New York’s MTA, said its two commuter rail services also were not expected to be affected. New Jersey Transit also didn’t expect disruptions.

A strike would also leave much of the Northeast Corridor mostly unscathed because Amtrak owns the tracks, although minor schedule changes are likely on a small number of Northeast Regional trains serving destinations from Virginia to Boston. Amtrak will let passengers change their reservation free for departures scheduled through Oct. 31.

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

Amtrak officials said the carrier will operate this week only services that will have enough time to reach their final destination. Passengers affected include those with trips 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 parties will reach a resolution, Amtrak has now begun phased adjustments,” the company said in a Tuesday statement. “These adjustments are necessary to ensure trains can reach their terminals before freight railroad service interruption if a resolution in negotiations is not reached.”

The battle that will determine the future of American passenger rail

The possible strike and early train cancellations spiked anxiety among travelers.

“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 canceled,” a Maryland passenger tweeted at Amtrak on Tuesday afternoon.

Another passenger who had departed New York said he was stuck in Chicago, where his train to Seattle was canceled. “Was looking forward to this for over a year — sad doesn’t begin to describe it lol,” the passenger tweeted.

Others pleaded for more information about the status of trains later in the week, while some questioned why Amtrak was canceling trains scheduled to arrive at destinations before any strike. Amtrak’s long-distance trains often arrive late to their destinations.

Jim Mathews, president and chief executive of the Rail Passengers Association, said canceling trains early in the week makes sense to avoid a scenario in which rail passengers could become stranded.

“It’s better to cancel some trains now than to send some people out onto the road and then have them stranded in the middle of nowhere because the strike has hit, and the train can’t move anymore,” he said. “Meanwhile, we all keep our fingers crossed that finally [the railroads and labor unions] get to a settlement.”

The disruptions come as demand for intercity trains is on the rise as the industry faces uncertainties because of staffing shortages.

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

Ian Duncan contributed to this report.