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We Aren’t Out of the Woods Yet
October 15, 2021 by Jim Mathews

Last year, and especially last summer, your Association professional staff was working the Zoom hallways on Capitol Hill to get Congress to order Amtrak to restore daily service it had cut because of COVID-19 and to come up with the money to pay for that restoration. As you all know, we won!

Fast-forward 14 months and here we are today, staring down the barrel of rumors of more service cuts. After decades of work to create a positive atmosphere for passenger rail, and years of work to win over anti-rail skeptics, and months of work to persuade Congress to free up COVID-19 relief funds for Amtrak, we now have a public eager to take trains, an Amtrak management willing to make them better, and political agreement on both ends of Pennsylvania Ave. that investing in passenger rail makes sense.

What we also have is a chronically understaffed Amtrak…one that’s so short of crucial operating personnel that Rail Passengers has learned management is now warning of the possibility of having to drop back again to three-times weekly service and slashing the Northeast Corridor because there won’t be enough folks to run the trains. This is NOT a definite outcome. We don’t know that this is absolutely what will happen. But it’s what we’re hearing today.

“But I thought having Amtrak Joe in the White House was going to fix everything?” some of you have told me. I’ll go back to what I said last Fall (November 20th, 2020, if you’d like to go back and look yourself): “Amtrak Joe has no magic wand to wave.”

Warehouses and restaurants, retail outlets and hotels, school buses and classrooms…everywhere you look, companies and agencies large and small don’t have the humans they need to operate well, or sometimes even to operate at all.

Now it’s happening to Amtrak. Staffing is a big part of why we can’t extend traditional dining beyond the Western trains, despite its enormous popularity and rave passenger reviews. Staffing is a big part of why some Amtrak consists are short, because there aren’t enough folks to get equipment out on the road when and where it’s needed. And staffing could drive a disaster-in-the-making in which Amtrak would have to cut back service a week before Thanksgiving, the busiest set of riding days on Amtrak’s calendar.

We warned in congressional testimony last year that this was a possibility. On October 21, 2020, for example, I said the following to the Senate Commerce Committee:

Worse yet, 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 [emphasis added]. 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. Host railroads over which Amtrak operates are free to thumb their noses at Amtrak’s insistence that the service reductions are temporary, treating them as “indefinite” or even permanent reductions. This would force Amtrak into a lengthy negotiation process that could even mean a trip to the Surface Transportation Board, imposing further expense and delaying service restoration for millions of Americans who rely on that service today. We have already shared with Committee staff one such host-railroad response, and we believe more may emerge soon.”

The last thing I wanted to be in this instance was right. I wanted to be wrong. Unfortunately, we don’t have many levers left to pull to address this problem. There’s no quick legislative or policy fix to be had. We can’t compel furloughed employees to accept Amtrak’s offers to come back to work. We can’t push new employees through the training pipeline faster. And nobody should be talking about lowering entry standards just to get new staff in the door (and so far nobody IS talking about that, for the record).

What we do have is a clear vision of where we need to be. Politics, as Max Weber wrote, is the “strong and slow boring of hard boards,” taking both passion and perspective. Rail Passengers staff will continue the work of sounding the alarm to elected leaders and transportation officials, collaborating on solutions to minimize disruptions. Some of the remedies will only come with time, as our nation works its way towards a truly post-pandemic economy. Other strategies to accelerate the recovery will present themselves sooner as we talk with labor representatives, operators and other stakeholders. Either way, you can count on us to be your voice in the fight for more and better trains. 

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