Amtrak Works to Restore Canceled Routes as Unions Reach Tentative Deal

The national passenger rail network had started canceling all of its long-distance trains on Thursday amid ongoing freight rail labor talks threatening to lead to a possible strike.

Index, WA, USA - September 08, 2021; The Empire Builder long distance Amtrak train behind a locomotive in 50th anniversary paint scheme crosses the North Fork Skykomish River in Index

Long-distance train routes like the Empire Builder between Chicago and Seattle were all going to be put on hold if labor disputes continued.

Photo by Shutterstock

Amtrak is working to quickly to restore canceled trains after President Joe Biden announced Thursday that a tentative agreement with the country’s freight rail unions has been reached. The deal thwarts a looming strike that was gearing up to take place on Friday and threatened to shut down rail lines across the country if negotiations hit a stalemate.

“While these negotiations do not involve Amtrak or the Amtrak workforce, many of our trains operate over freight railroad tracks,” Amtrak said in a September 13 statement about the ongoing labor talks.

With a resolution still up in the air as of Wednesday night, Amtrak had begun making initial service adjustments, including canceling all of its long-distance trains in an effort to avoid possible disruptions.

But after a tentative deal was reached, Amtrak said that it “is working to quickly restore canceled trains and reaching out to impacted customers to accommodate on first available departures,” according to a statement sent to AFAR.

Railroads and union representatives met with the Labor Department for 20 hours on Wednesday to hammer out an agreement. The tentative deal will go to union members for a vote after a post-ratification cooling-off period of several weeks.

In addition to long-distance trains, Amtrak had planned to cancel service on the Capitol Corridor, Amtrak Cascades, Heartland Flyer, Illinois Service, Michigan Service, Pacific Surfliner (partially), Piedmont, San Joaquins, Springfield Service (north of Springfield), and Virginia Service. All of these services are being restored.

Amtrak train routes that were not impacted by cancellations include:

  • Acela service between Boston, New York, and Washington, D.C.
  • Empire Service between New York City and Albany
  • Keystone Service between New York City and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania
  • Amtrak Hartford Line between New Haven, Connecticut, and Springfield, Massachusetts
  • Downeaster between Boston and Brunswick, Maine

The national rail network said that it has notified customers impacted by the cancellations and has offered to change their reservations to another travel date, waiving any difference in fare for departures through October 31. Amtrak is also offering to provide a full refund without cancellation fees, if travelers prefer.

Why were the rail union workers going to strike?

At issue had been negotiations based on the recommendations of a Presidential Emergency Board appointed by President Biden this summer that called for a 24 percent salary increase and $5,000 in bonuses in a five-year deal that would be retroactive as of 2020. Those recommendations also included one additional paid leave day per year and improved health insurance.

Unions that represent railway conductors and engineers had been holding out in the hope that railroads would agree to go beyond those recommendations and address some of their concerns about unpredictable schedules and strict attendance policies that they say make it difficult to take any time off, the Associated Press reported. They say the job cuts that major railroads have made over the past six years—eliminating nearly one-third of their workers—have made a difficult job even harder. The railroads maintain their operations have just become more efficient as they rely on fewer, longer trains.

The Association of American Railroads estimated that a strike would have cost the U.S. economy more than $2 billion a day.

Associated Press contributed reporting.

Michelle Baran is a deputy editor at AFAR where she oversees breaking news, travel intel, airline, cruise, and consumer travel news. Baran joined AFAR in August 2018 after an 11-year run as a senior editor and reporter at leading travel industry newspaper Travel Weekly.
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