Amtrak begins canceling trips as freight rail strike looms

Amtrak is canceling trips on some long-distance routes from Chicago as the deadline for a possible strike by freight railroad workers nears.

Starting Tuesday, the passenger rail agency is suspending service on routes between Chicago and San Francisco, the Pacific Northwest and Los Angeles. Service will also be suspended along part of a fourth route out of Chicago, between Los Angeles and San Antonio, Amtrak said.

The cancellations are intended to avoid possible disruption if freight railroad workers go on strike while long runs are underway on the California Zephyr, Empire Builder, Southwest Chief and Texas Eagle routes. Although Amtrak workers are not involved in ongoing contract negotiations, nearly all passenger service routes outside of the northeastern United States use tracks owned, maintained and shipped by United States railroads. cargo, and a walkout could disrupt passenger service.

“These adjustments are necessary to ensure trains can reach their terminals before freight rail service is disrupted if a resolution in negotiations is not reached,” Amtrak officials said in a statement.

Federal law prohibits a freight railroad strike or lockout until Friday, and Congress could step in and block a work stoppage if unions and railroads fail to reach an agreement by the end of the day. of the week. But Amtrak is just the latest agency to take preventative action beforehand.

The railroads said they would begin reducing shipments of hazardous materials and other chemicals on Monday to ensure that dangerous goods cars would not be stuck along the tracks if trains stopped. Leaders of the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers – Transportation Division union which represents drivers, and the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen union which represents engineers, criticized the move as a move to increase pressure on shippers and Congress to intervene.

Business groups and the White House have pressured the railroads and unions to resolve the contract dispute over concerns about the economic impact of stopping shipments of materials that many companies matter. The Association of American Railroads trade group released a report last week estimating that closing the railroads would cost the economy $2 billion a day.

The majority of unions representing some 115,000 workers have reached tentative agreements needed to avoid a strike at the nation’s largest freight railroads, including Union Pacific, BNSF, Norfolk Southern, Kansas City Southern and CSX. The tentative deals closely followed recommendations from a presidential emergency board that called for increases of 24% over five years, $5,000 in bonuses and an extra paid day off a year.

But the two largest unions representing conductors and engineers have resisted because they want the railways to go beyond those recommendations and address concerns about strict attendance policies that they say make it difficult furloughs and increased workload after the railway cuts. a third of their workforce in recent years.

In addition to carrying Amtrak freight and passenger trains, the freight tracks also carry some Metra trains. The commuter rail agency made no changes to service this week, but said a freight strike or lockout could affect schedules.

Nine Metra lines—all lines except Metra Electric and Rock Island—interact with freight railroads in some way, such as being shipped by the railroads. Four of those lines — the BNSF and the Union Pacific North, Northwest and West lines — are owned and operated directly by the freight railroads, and Metra said it expects any work stoppage to also interrupt service on these lines.

Amtrak may also make changes to other intercity and domestic routes, beyond its initial cancellations, the agency said.

Amtrak said it will contact affected travelers, who can reschedule their trip or receive a refund at no additional cost.

The Associated Press contributed

sfreishtat@chicagotribune.com

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