Amtrak disappointingly hasn’t been able to bring enough people back to work or into the training pipeline to restore daily service across the National Network. They’re hundreds of employees short of what they need to get back to normal, and by some counts it’s thousands. Yesterday they said they could only restore service to five of the trains that were cut in January. I’ll say this, though – it hasn’t been for lack of trying.
Exhibit A? Amtrak’s jobs site: careers.amtrak.com. If you ever wanted to go work on the railroad, now is probably the best time ever to make your move.
Every single crew base is hiring trainee positions. “Passenger Conductor Trainee – Denver,” “Passenger Conductor Trainee – Albuquerque,” “Passenger Conductor Trainee – San Luis Obispo,” and on and on it goes: Oakland, Portland, Sacramento, Chicago, San Diego, Portland (Maine), Los Angeles, Salt Lake City. Superintendents, Road Foremen, red caps, all there as well.
You’d rather look out straight ahead? Well, they’ve got you covered there too. Passenger Engineer Trainee slots are open out of Miami, Springfield, Mass., Washington, DC, New York City, Jacksonville, Fla., and New Haven, Conn.
Want to collect tips? Train Attendant Trainees are being hired in Seattle, Chicago, Boston, Miami, Lorton (yep, the AutoTrain), and New Orleans. Lead Service Attendants with food-service experience are being recruited for New York.
My point here is simply that Amtrak is not starving the trains of personnel. I have said over and over again – and will say again here – that they dug themselves a deeper hole than they needed to. We told them privately, and we warned Congress publicly, that permitting a series of early buyouts and furloughs during the peak of the pandemic would leave the railroad hard-pressed to restore service when the time came. So, this is a problem in which they share some of the blame. But it’s not all of the blame, and it’s not just Amtrak.
A couple of weeks ago when I last checked in with Amtrak management on this issue, they shared with me some of the other steps they’re taking to try to fill the pipeline. We’ll call this Exhibit B.
They’re bringing on an outside contractor for recruiting, they’re looking for ways to “reduce attrition during [the] hiring process,” starting to over-hire for training classes (knowing now that there will be a significant washout rate), boosting the training pay rate, introducing retention bonuses for employees nearing retirement, partnering with the unions to beef up recruiting efforts, introducing recruitment bonuses, and setting up new programs like apprenticeships in Mechanical, internships, early-career rotational programs, and a management training program.
The training pay increase is especially good news; I’ve heard personally from a few corners that they managed to poach some Class I engineers only to have them quit once they saw their first paycheck in training status. So, too, is the effort to “reduce attrition.” Nobody will say it out loud, so I will: it’s still against Federal law and DOT safety regulations to smoke pot or eat edibles if you’re going to work on the railroad, even if there’s a brand-new respectable-looking dispensary just a block from your house where you live. If you’re going to hire on with Amtrak, and you fall into the category above, expect to flunk your drug test. And that’s one more empty slot in the new-hire pipeline.
As I said yesterday to the many people who wrote me with some version of the question “is Amtrak using staffing as an excuse” to hobble National Network trains so they can be cut later, I don’t see it that way. I sit on a FEMA/Homeland Security emergency working group right now about the surface transportation networks and their Covid response, and we had our regular meeting just Wednesday afternoon. I’m not permitted to share the discussions or the slides, but I can say here that staffing problems exist 100-percent across the board: ports, warehouses, freight rail, long-haul trucks, drayage trucks, you name it. Amtrak is definitely not alone.
Moreover, Amtrak is competing with transit agencies for the same kinds of employees, from Dallas to Los Angeles, Houston and Chicago to New York City. In fact, NYC subway workers shortly after Thanksgiving started getting wooed out of retirement with $35,000 three-month appointments, just to keep things moving. My friends at the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) are finishing up a survey of all their transit-system members today, and we expect them to make the results public during their legislative conference. I suspect we'll see that Amtrak is far from alone in its hiring problems.
I’ll say it again louder for the folks sitting in the back. We all understand how we got here, but it’s still frustrating to see. We warned Amtrak repeatedly in 2020 and again in 2021 that Covid-related cutbacks would make it extremely hard to “turn the lights back on” when it was time to do so. And here we are, a few months after Congress passed passenger-rail funding of the likes we haven’t seen in generations, and eager passengers can’t even take a basic daily service in most parts of the country. Humpty Dumpty is standing up on his own feet now, but he’s still broken. Let’s start putting Humpty Dumpty back together again!