Happening Now

With No Deal in Sight, Possibility of Rail Strike Grows

November 23, 2022

With Path to Deal Between Freights and Rail Workers Uncertain, Possibility of Passenger Service Disruptions Grow

Thanksgiving travel is rebounding, with Americans resuming their pre-pandemic holiday treks to visit friends and family. Airlines are packed, roads are congested, and Amtrak is reporting that ridership has recovered to 80 percent of its pre-COVID Thanksgiving numbers and trains are full. Amtrak has increased the number of railcars in operation this week to accommodate the surge, going to all-reserved seats on a number of routes, and encouraging passengers to arrive to the station earlier than usual. Commuter railroads are also adding Thanksgiving service to accommodate travelers looking to avoid high prices at the pump.

What few of these Thanksgiving passengers will appreciate is that a huge percentage of this train travel will take place on freight-owned track, facilitated by rail workers employed by freight rail companies. Amtrak owns only 3 percent of the 21,400 route-miles traveled by Amtrak trains, with the remaining 97 percent owned by freight railroads. Several commuter railroads—including Metrolink in California, Metra in Illinois, and Virginia Railway Express in Virginia—also rely on freight-owned rights of way to deliver passengers to their destinations.

Most train passengers are only vaguely aware of this fact. That may soon change. Earlier this week, one of the largest rail unions in the country voted to reject a deal negotiated by a Presidential Emergency Board (PEB), bringing the reality of a freight rail strike into sharper focus. A rail worker strike would halt the movement of both passengers and goods, landing a $2 billion-a-day hit on the U.S. economy.

Fortunately, the original November 19th expiration of a "cooling-off" period was extended to December 9th, which has kept the rail network running, allowed Americans to travel home, and kept food flowing to grocery market shelves. However, the next cooling-off period expires on December 9. That could spell bad news for passengers and shippers alike.

Passengers already faced this threat back in September, when the original PEB cooling-off period expired. Out of an abundance of caution, Amtrak initiated a suspension of service for certain long-distance trains with multi-day schedules three to four days ahead of that deadline, so as not to strand passengers, workers, or equipment. We believe that is the smart—and passenger-focused—way to handle this potential disruption. As we get closer to the December 9 deadline, we continue to encourage Amtrak to ensure that passengers whose travel may be disrupted receive relevant information in a timely fashion and, if necessary, receive reimbursement for cancelled trips.

Both Congress and the White House are fully engaged on how to avoid this situation, and unlikely to let a rail labor strike go on for an extended period. Under the 1926 Railway Labor Act, Congress has the right to pass emergency legislation that would force more than 100,000 unionized workers back to work and imposing terms for a deal outlined in August by the PEB (or some variation of that deal).

However, the root cause will need to be addressed. Rail workers are saying that arduous on-call schedules and a lack of paid sick leave are creating unsustainable working conditions. Many industry analysts, including Rail Passengers Association, have pointed to these operational decisions made by the freight railroads for deteriorating conditions across the U.S. rail network. So-called “Precision Scheduled Railroading”—i.e. moving longer freight trains with fewer workers at slower speeds—may have improved freight rail financial statements, but it has also resulted in late Amtrak trains, unpredictable deliveries of goods and commodities, and an exhausted rail workforce. Rail Passengers believes that returning to a standard scheduled railroad would solve many of these problems, including Amtrak delays, late freight shipments, and rail worker burnout.

We’ve also seen another solution in several states, where state transportation departments have purchased rail rights of way to increase capacity. The U.S. can create a safer, more energy-efficient transportation network by treating rail corridors like highway corridors—sources of public investment that are optimized for both passenger and freight usage. As Rail Passengers President & CEO Jim Mathews noted back in September:

“If negotiations fail, America’s passenger trains will cease operations outside the Northeast Corridor. [Rail Passengers is] calling on both freight railroads and rail labor organizations to continue to negotiate in good faith; the U.S. rail network is too important to America’s citizens to allow for an extended shutdown of the system. However, it is essential that the negotiations produce a collective bargaining agreement that allows for freight trains to run safely and on-time. If that means spending more on operations and less on stock buybacks, then that is what needs to happen.”