Rail systems brace for shutdowns, Amtrak cancels routes as strike threat nears

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Transit systems across the country were on edge Wednesday amid the threat of a freight rail worker strike, making preparations ahead of possible travel disruptions that could affect hundreds of thousands of rail customers. Amtrak said it is canceling all of its long-distance and some state-supported trains starting Thursday.

Some regional transit agencies said they are preparing for service stoppages as early as Thursday evening ahead of a possible 12:01 a.m. Friday shutdown. They are wrapping up plans to communicate with commuters if a strike is not averted, and some are working with other agencies to direct people to bus alternatives.

The disruptions to passenger systems that operate on freight lines would be felt across several major metropolitan areas, including Washington, Chicago and Los Angeles. The strike threat also eliminated most Amtrak service outside the Northeast Corridor, forcing travelers to find other modes of transportation or cancel plans at the last minute.

Amtrak canceled service on all of its long-distance routes beginning Thursday, most of which have a daily trip in each direction and provide cross-country connections for thousands of Americans. Between 24 and 28 daily trains will not operate while service is suspended.

Amtrak said late Wednesday it is suspending some state-funded routes starting Thursday evening. These short-haul routes include popular service between Washington and Virginia destinations, and in the Pacific Northwest.

“One can just hope that there is some resolution before Friday,” said Karen Finucan Clarkson, a spokeswoman for the Virginia Railway Express, which carries commuters from Northern Virginia suburbs into the nation’s capital. “We are truly hoping that we can run a service on Friday. That would be the best for the region.”

A strike would involve workers for the two private railroads that host VRE trains — CSX and Norfolk Southern — and result in the suspension of all service. Several commuter rail agencies and the vast majority of Amtrak routes operate on tracks owned by freight railroads whose workers are threatening to strike.

Passenger trains, grain shipments to be stopped, as railway strike looms

Freight railroads and unions representing their workers have been negotiating a new contract as part of a longtime dispute over pay and working conditions, but have not come to an agreement. A federally mandated “cooling-off” period ends Friday, opening the possibility of a strike or lockout.

The Biden administration has sought to resolve the labor conflict to avert the possibility of one of the most disruptive strikes in recent U.S. history. The Association of American Railroads estimates a shutdown could cost the economy more than $2 billion a day and “could idle more than 7,000 trains daily and trigger retail product shortages, widespread manufacturing shutdowns, job losses and disruptions to hundreds of thousands of passenger rail customers.”

The labor dispute began taking a hit on intercity operations early in the week. Hundreds of Amtrak passengers had to change or cancel plans as the railroad cut cross-country trains on 10 of its 14 long-distance routes before expanding the service suspension Wednesday. The carrier said the changes on those multiday trips, ahead of a possible strike, were necessary to avoid passenger disruptions during a route.

The D.C.-to-Boston corridor, the nation’s busiest, would be mostly unaffected by a strike because Amtrak owns the tracks. But Amtrak said more cancellations are likely, including on state-funded, short-haul service that runs on freight lines. Amtrak operates most of its 21,000 route-miles on tracks owned, maintained and dispatched by freight railroads.

Among the state-funded routes impacted are the Capitol Corridor in California; the Amtrak Cascades between Washington and Oregon; the Heartland Flyer connecting Oklahoma City to Fort Worth; the Pacific Surfliner in Southern California; the Piedmont train in North Carolina; the San Joaquins in California’s San Joaquin Valley; and trains in Illinois, Michigan and Virginia.

Major regional train systems Wednesday continued to encourage passengers to plan for alternate travel later this week.

Chicago’s Metra service said customers could see disruptions starting Thursday night on lines that run on freight tracks. The agency said BNSF Railway and Union Pacific are planning to begin curtailing service during the Thursday evening rush in preparation for a work stoppage. Four lines that have service contracted through freight rails would be affected.

Amtrak cancellations, passenger frustrations grow amid strike threat

Metrolink, a network of seven lines serving Los Angeles and other Southern California communities, has been warning customers since last week of the potential for disruptions, saying Wednesday that some disruptions will likely begin Thursday night. Five of the system’s seven lines use tracks owned by freight railroads, meaning as many as 70 percent of customers could be affected.

“We are coordinating with our rail partners to provide as much alternative service as possible, but there may be complete service cancellations on some lines,” the agency said in a service update.

The Maryland Department of Transportation continued to issue alerts Wednesday to passengers on the potential of an “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. State transportation officials said MARC is providing passengers a list of bus and other transit alternatives.

“MARC Train is prepared to run regular scheduled service on the Camden and Brunswick lines should CSX not experience a labor strike by their unions,” said Veronica Battisti, a spokeswoman with the Maryland Transit Administration.

In Virginia, the suspension of VRE service is likely to affect as many as 10,000 daily commuters. The railroad, which until recently was carrying about 5,200 passengers — down about 70 percent from pre-pandemic levels — saw a spike in ridership after Labor Day as some Metro commuters transition to the system amid a weeks-long shutdown of several Metro stations south of Reagan National Airport.

“If there is a rail strike, it means for those Blue and Yellow line riders as well as VRE riders, there will be no rail service as an option into the District,” Clarkson said.

Everything you need to know about the looming railroad strike

VRE is preparing announcements it will run at its stations Friday if the system is forced to shut down. The agency is also coordinating with commuter and local bus systems in Northern Virginia that could be used as alternatives. As of Wednesday afternoon, officials said, the prospects for a strike were still unclear and the hopes were for no effects come Friday.

“On Thursday afternoon, we will have to make a decision,” Clarkson said. “If it goes down to the wire, then it may be the wee hours of [Friday] morning before we can get something out. … Then we will send out alerts.”

Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.), an advocate for rail infrastructure, called the unions’ demands “reasonable” and urged railroads to work toward an agreement that avoids a strike and significant effects on commerce and transportation.

“Given the fact that Amtrak has already preemptively canceled a number of its long-distance trains in anticipation of a strike, it doesn’t take much imagination to predict the mess a strike would cause,” he said.

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Luz Lazo

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