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Amtrak, commuter rail dodge crisis as strike threat likely averted

Amtrak resumed some service Thursday that had been suspended ahead of a potential work stoppage, and planned normal service Friday

An early morning MARC train arrives at the Monocacy MARC station on Thursday. A tentative agreement was reached to avert a national freight rail strike that would have disrupted passenger and commuter traffic. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

Passenger rail systems in the Washington region and across the country dodged a crisis Thursday as the White House announced a tentative agreement to avert a rail strike that had threatened to disrupt travel nationwide.

The agreement, which has yet to be ratified, came a day before a possible strike of freight railroad workers that would have halted much of the nation’s passenger rail operations. The development brought relief to transit agencies and their passengers after an agonizing week that sparked early trip cancellations and threatened to usher in crippling service shutdowns.

The potential blow to Amtrak and commuter rail operations — ripple effects of a labor dispute in the freight industry — heightened the fragility of the nation’s passenger rail network. By late Thursday, many Amtrak passengers were still caught in the chaos of canceled trains, trying to rebook trips and recover from resulting financial losses.

Amtrak resumed some service Thursday that had been suspended ahead of a potential work stoppage, and planned normal service Friday. The passenger rail corporation began suspending service Tuesday before expanding a shutdown to all long-distance and some shorter state-supported train routes. Amtrak said the early cancellations before a strike were meant to avoid passengers becoming stranded mid-route on multiday trips.

White House announces ‘tentative’ deal to avert rail strike

“This tentative agreement will keep our trains moving, stations bustling, and employees proudly serving customers as we move them across this great country,” Amtrak chief executive Stephen Gardner said in statement, thanking federal, freight and labor union officials for reaching a resolution.

Three of Amtrak’s 14 long-distance routes — the Auto Train, Capitol Limited and Cardinal — were restored Thursday, along with all of its state-funded routes.

Major regional rail agencies had warned commuters about possible service shutdowns beginning as early as Thursday evening. Officials said they were following the negotiations closely to determine the potential effects on their operations — ready to suspend service if a strike occurred.

The labor dispute over pay and working conditions between freight railroads and unions representing their workers had dragged on for months. Workers were demanding greater flexibility to miss work for medical emergencies and other reasons without fear of being disciplined. Negotiators had until 12:01 a.m. Friday to reach a deal to avoid a significant hit to the economy.

Most Amtrak routes outside the Northeast Corridor and about half of commuter rail systems in the United States operate at least partially on tracks or rights of way owned by freight railroads. Amtrak owns its tracks in the busy Washington-to-Boston corridor, which would have been mostly spared during a strike.

Outside the Northeast Corridor, passenger trains remain a byproduct of the freight network, experts say, relying upon the willingness of freight railroads to share their tracks. The reliability of passenger trains is hindered when passengers become delayed behind freight trains — sometimes by hours.

This week’s dispute between railroads and their workers is the most recent challenge to an expansion of U.S. passenger rail, officials say, despite federal support that includes a $66 billion infusion from last year’s infrastructure law.

“I don’t know what the terms of the agreement are, but could we be in the same place in five years? The vast majority of passenger trains outside the Northeast Corridor can be shut down,” said Ross Capon, a transportation consultant and industry veteran. “It is quite upsetting.”

Amtrak cancellations, passenger frustrations grow amid strike threat

The disruptions to passenger systems would have been felt across several major metropolitan areas, including Chicago, Los Angeles and Washington.

Metra, a commuter rail service in the Chicago area that has four lines operated by freight railroads, avoided suspending train service it planned to cancel Thursday night in anticipation of a strike.

“We are greatly relieved that we will be able to continue to provide the safe and reliable service that you deserve and that you rely upon,” the agency said in a statement. “Please accept our apologies for this week of uncertainty and anxiety, and our thanks for your patience and understanding.”

Metrolink, which serves the Los Angeles area and had warned customers of disruptions beginning Thursday night, also said the tentative labor deal meant service would run as normal.

Not all systems said they expected smooth operations. The Maryland Department of Transportation said MARC plans to operate normal service on its three lines Friday, but warned passengers of potential lingering delays in the weeks ahead.

The agency said “significant freight train congestion caused by the potential work stoppage” will continue to cause delays for passengers and could bring occasional train cancellations for weeks on the Camden Line, which runs on CSX-owned tracks between Baltimore and Washington’s Union Station. Passengers would be able to use commuter buses as an alternative or transfer to MARC’s Penn Line, which uses Amtrak’s tracks.

State transportation officials didn’t provide more details about the possible future delays, referring questions to CSX. In response, CSX said in a statement the commuter rail system “should discuss [the] reasoning for its ongoing cancellations.”

Across the Potomac River, the Virginia Railway Express, which carries commuters from Northern Virginia to the nation’s capital, also alerted passengers that it planned regular service Friday.

The tentative agreement between freight railroads and labor unions “should allow the Virginia Railway Express to serve commuters in the commonwealth without interruption,” VRE chief executive Rich Dalton said. “The thousands of Virginians who rely on VRE each day to reach their place of employment are undoubtedly relieved and pleased that they can continue to travel safely and comfortably onboard our trains.”

Davin Peterson, a Woodbridge, Va., resident who takes VRE into Washington, said alerts earlier in the week about a possible shutdown Friday had worried him. He weighed his options to get to work at the Library of Congress on Friday, considering a commuter bus instead of driving. He said Thursday he was relieved to hear a resolution had been reached.

What to know about railroad strike cancellations after tentative deal

“The rail strike would have hurt our economy and halted passenger rail service around the country,” he said.

DJ Stadtler, executive director of the Virginia Passenger Rail Authority, which oversees passenger service in the state, called the tentative agreement “welcome news” for the growing number of Virginians who depend on Amtrak.

While a strike and widespread cancellations were avoided, Thursday’s accord came too late for some passengers whose trips already were canceled.

Debra Edwards, 65, shared an email she sent to Amtrak’s customer relations about her canceled trip aboard the California Zephyr. In the email, Edwards described the planned long-distance ride from the Midwest to the West Coast as a “bucket list” trip and a “long due vacation after retiring and waiting out COVID restrictions.”

She flew to Chicago from Dayton, Ohio, and was planning to fly home from California after another train ride on the Pacific Surfliner.

Edwards wrote that she “spent an excruciating six hours in my Chicago hotel room” looking into flights while unable to find a rental car. She said it cost $384 to fly home, and her air carrier would not commit to refunding flights she will miss from California to Ohio. She called Amtrak’s preemptive decision to cancel “extremely premature and unwarranted.”

“What took me a year in advance planning, packing and excitement — was wiped out in one little text message the day before — with just 24 hours notice,” she wrote.

Sabrina Parnell and her husband, Robert, had been looking forward to their Thursday trip aboard the Empire Builder from Seattle to Minneapolis. On Tuesday, the email came that their trip was among those canceled.

It was to be her first train trip — a way to travel without dealing with the stress of an airport, she said. They ended up with last-minute plane tickets to Minnesota.

“This was supposed to be the start of a relaxing vacation,” said Sabrina Parnell, 53. “Instead, it’s been a real disappointment.”

Transit advocates had warned that failed negotiations would have grave consequences, essentially leading to a halt of intercity passenger trains outside the Northeast Corridor. On Thursday, Jim Mathews, president and chief executive of the Rail Passengers Association, said he welcomed news of a deal.

“This is a significant win for everyone who depends on trains, whether to get to work or home or to get the stuff they buy,” he said.