Long Distance Trains Vulnerable to Amtrak Staff Shortages

Yesterday it was reported in this space that Amtrak is facing having to temporarily curtail some train services in December due to a shortage of operating and on-board personnel.

A report posted on the website of the Rail Passengers Association on Friday provided more detail about what could happen and why.

The Amtrak worker shortage is linked to two factors: A COVID-19 vaccination rule and workforce reductions made during the pandemic when services were curtailed due to lack of passengers.

Amtrak plans to remove from service after Dec. 8 those employees who have not received at least their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.

Although Amtrak’s vaccination rule contains an exemption for workers who have a verified medical or religious exemption, a memorandum sent by Amtrak CEO William Flynn indicated that that will only mean unvaccinated workers will be placed on unpaid leave.

Those workers who are unvaccinated and don’t have an exemption by Dec. 8 will be fired. It remains to be seen how many Amtrak workers will be let go or placed on unpaid leave.

The RPA report said Amtrak has enough workers in the Northeast Corridor to cover most trains operating there. But the workers shortage may become particularly acute on long-distance route where the passenger carrier could face a shortage of qualified locomotive engineers.

That means that Amtrak might be reducing the frequency of service on long-distant routes to tri-weekly as it did in October 2020.

The worker shortage, RPA noted, is rooted in more than some workers declining to be vaccinated.

Amtrak furloughed dozens of workers during the pandemic in an effort to conserve cash. It also suspended its new employee recruitment and training programs.

Thus far Amtrak has not released details on what trains may be suspended and/or cut back to reduced frequency of operation.

The Flynn memo indicated that plan is still being worked out and the company wants to see what response it gets among its unvaccinated workers.

One report indicated that 80 percent of Amtrak workers have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.

The RPA report indicated without providing specifics that Amtrak is developing incentive programs designed to move workers to where they’re needed most. It also has stepped up hiring and training.

Cutting workers was not the only step Amtrak took during the pandemic to conserve cash. It also mothballed numerous passenger cars and now faces a shortage of mechanical workers to get those cars ready to return to the road.

The result has been that reduced consists persist with fewer coaches, sleepers and lounge cars in service.

RPA said Amtrak will soon graduate a new class of agents to answer the phones in its reservation center. Until they are on the job prospective passengers face long waits to talk with an agent by phone.

The service cuts, if they occur, will come just before and probably extend into if not through the busy Christmas and New Year’s travel season.

It takes at least six months to qualify new locomotive engineers and get then into place at crew bases on the long-distance networks.

The shortage staff issue is not news to Amtrak management, which RPA said has known about it for several months. But it is just now surfacing in the traveling public.

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