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Passengers to Engineers: Please Don’t Quit
December 10, 2021 by Jim Mathews

I really didn’t want to be right. Honest.

I had hoped that Amtrak operating employees crucial to keeping our daily services running every day would step up and help us all avoid losing services, even temporarily. Let’s face it, cutting services down from daily only weeks after Congress has approved the largest capital infusion in Amtrak’s 50-year history...is not a great look.

“We don’t expect these requirements will cause disruptions to services that people depend on,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said during a briefing following Amtrak President Stephen Gardner’s appearance before House lawmakers. “There is some time to implement it. We are of course working with all federal contractors and federal employees and parts of the federal government to implement this going forward.”

I’m glad she’s optimistic. I’m less so. It’s true that 95% vaccinated is a lot of progress from the 80% or where Amtrak was earlier this Fall when we began to ring the alarm bells. And we have until January 4th – nearly, though not quite, a full month – to get that final cohort of vital employees into compliance.

But many of those hard-core folks remaining are those who are adamantly opposed to getting a vaccine at all, either for religious reasons or out of more political objections. I know, I’m getting emails from them. A lot of them. And some of them are pretty mean, for what it’s worth.

In the written testimony we were asked to provide for yesterday’s hearing, I noted that “regardless of how we arrived at this point, an extended disruption of Amtrak service on corridors affecting hundreds of communities, mere weeks after the passage of the IIJA, would surely undermine public confidence in these promising new passenger rail programs. We hope Amtrak will be able to avoid any disruptions to service. If cuts do take place, Congress must leverage its oversight powers and the FY22 appropriations bill to ensure that any such disruptions are brief.

Our friend Frank Wilner, the long-time rail observer and excellent columnist for Railway Age magazine, offers an intriguing temporary solution – one that I can say I wholeheartedly endorse. Congress can work together with rail unions to pass a quick bill that would temporarily allow recently retired operating employees to go back to work on the railroad for six to nine months without forfeiting their monthly railroad retirement system payment. This could well coax folks back where they’re needed, with the Class Is and with Amtrak, by removing the major disincentive they now face, forfeiting those benefits.

We could make it temporary, we could make it applicable only to certain classes of employees, and we could write in provisions to address seniority concerns. Re-qualifying these employees should take less time than growing them from scratch, and many may have retired recently enough that flowback provisions would funnel them right back where they left.

That might be enough to get our congested railroads back in service and Amtrak through the hump of training a new crop of locomotive engineers and conductors.

Meanwhile, as I’ve said before in this space, if you’re out riding the trains, make a point of offering a cheerful thank-you to conductors, assistant conductors, OBS crews, and locomotive engineers whenever you see them. And tell them how much you need them to do the right thing and stay on the job.

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