Happening Now

Forget Uncle Sam: Amtrak Needs YOU

August 5, 2022

By Jim Mathews / President & CEO

Consider these two quotes, which are 21 months and 14 days apart:

“Amtrak may find it harder to restore daily service than management expects. Furloughs will force skilled employees who run the trains to re-qualify in their crafts before service can return, and some employees may not come back. Unless rolling stock is stored with great care and continuing maintenance, coaches, sleepers, and baggage cars will deteriorate while parked, demanding reconditioning before return-to-service and potentially permanently removing some assets from the fleet.”Rail Passengers President & CEO Jim Mathews’ Senate Commerce Committee testimony, October 21, 2020.

“We have a shortage of railcars because we have a shortage of people to work on the trains. We’ve been pretty public about this shortage....If you know someone who wants to move up to Chicago and work on our trains, and they put my name down, I will get $3,500 bucks. In other parts of the country where we need conductors and engineers, the bounty is $2,500. I know in one case we paid for relocation from Wyoming to Florida just to work on our trains. It’s important that we get people in these jobs so we can restore services.”Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari explaining why the Carl Sandburg service out of Chicago was suspended this week.

This is definitely one of those times when I wish with all my heart I had been wrong. But I wasn’t, and it’s putting all of our hard work over the past five years in serious jeopardy.

Our own Joe Aiello was on the Empire Builder this week and sat next to a couple whose entire sleeper car had no air conditioning...during a nationwide heat wave...despite their having paid enough money for their tickets to have gone on a Virgin Voyages Caribbean cruise.

I remarked then to Joe that this is a classic rock-and-a-hard-place story: if Amtrak had simply canceled their trip and put them on a bus, they would complain to Amtrak to try to get their money back, correctly. Now they’re in the sleeper and going where they need to go, but in misery.

What a terrible choice!

Amtrak’s staffing shortage is absolutely real. It mirrors the shortages in many other fields and industries, so it is unfair to blame Amtrak for all of the short-staffing problems. But it IS fair to point out that Amtrak might have been better able to weather this storm than the other suffering travel providers like JetBlue and American had they followed our advice and kept the payroll intact while waiting for Congress to come through with the rescue money we all knew would come – and did, only a few weeks after my testimony.

Nonetheless, looking backwards and pointing fingers won’t get coaches and sleepers out of Beech Grove and back on the road where we all desperately need them to be. Amtrak started this year 1,500 employees short, and while they’ve been on a torrid hiring spree some veteran employees are leaving as fast as the new ones are coming on. The Federal Railroad Administration gave Amtrak an $8 million grant to set up mechanical staff training programs in Washington, New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Wilmington, Del., and Beech Grove. These are three-year programs, however, and the need is acute right now.

The short-term answer is the bounty our friend Marc Magliari mentioned. I’ve seen a few Amtrak employees on Facebook advertising themselves as references for new applicants, obviously hoping to get in on the bounty game.

Good on ‘em, I say. Let’s get staff in the door now and try to recover quickly, while people are still willing to give Amtrak a chance. If you know someone who might want to work at Amtrak, especially in the mechanical shops or on board, send them to the website careers.amtrak.com. Seriously. The sooner the better.

My fear is that enough horror stories will accumulate between now and the midterm elections that a new Congress won’t be able to look past the short-term problems. Your Association staff has spent many years patiently and soberly making the economic and practical case for rail transportation of all kinds in Congress. And we’ve succeeded in persuading most of them that Amtrak – or something like it – has an important role to play in our Nation and its economy.

Storm clouds are brewing as the midterms approach, however, and it’s clear that Amtrak could face real problems next year if the new Congress questions whether we should have appropriated the most money ever in history for Amtrak and rail transportation.

We aren’t in the business of telling you who to vote for, and I can say we enjoy strong support among both Democrats and Republicans. This does not have to be about political parties. But whoever you vote for, you ought to ask them how they feel about rail transportation and the long-needed investments in new equipment and new services. And if you get to attend a meet-and-greet, you might share a positive story or two to offset what they’re already no doubt hearing from other corners during this nightmarish summer travel season. If we don't, it's possible our nightmarish summer travel season could be followed by a nightmarish spring legislative season.