US passenger railroad cutting service to cover ‘unprecedented’ workforce shortage

After powerful superstorm Sandy in 2012, Amtrak vowed to focus on safety in the aftermath. Now, at worst, the national passenger railroad will not run more than half of its fleet

Amtrak will cut service in an effort to cover a cost burden as its management battles with an unprecedented worker shortage.

It anticipates cutting service from 13,000 cars to 8,000 cars by the end of next year as some rail routes are replaced by other modes of transportation, most likely Via Rail or toll roads, vice president for operations Scott Cook said on Thursday.

After powerful superstorm Sandy in 2012, the US-controlled Amtrak vowed to focus on safety in the aftermath. Many of the 7,000-8,000 workers it needed weren’t needed because there were no disasters since, and for good reason. There hasn’t been a major accident in the railroad’s history.

Still, there is trouble now – a staff shortage exacerbated by cutbacks in US immigration policies in the wake of the 11 October terrorist attacks.

“As we see staffing drop and we’re focusing more on schedule reliability, our customers are going to see trains cancelling or being bumped when things go wrong,” Cook said at a public meeting of the Seattle-Tacoma-Bremerton commuter train line, which Amtrak owns.

Amtrak’s attrition rate, he said, is about 15%, while a typical station has a four- to five-times-expected turnover. It takes four years to fill many jobs, partly because many applicants lack transportation, not to mention language and transportation barriers, and because it takes a lot of convincing to get some people through background checks.

“I would love to get jobs back,” Cook said, standing at the end of a muddy platform as early risers pushed their bicycles onto the tracks for the morning commute to the Seattle suburbs. “You can’t replace staff with customers. You’d be sorry in five years’ time, when our ticket sales go down.”

It’s unclear how long it will take Amtrak to get through its staff crunch. Local chapters of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees have already lobbied in Congress and local legislatures to let federal immigrant funding lapse, and unions in the Washington state rail industry say the work force has been more vocal about challenging job cuts in the rail business.

The government’s expired spending bill currently blocks automatic cuts to Amtrak’s operating budget. The railroad is facing $1.1bn worth of cuts for the next budget year, mostly in subsidies for its rail operations.

The situation also affects Amtrak’s passenger trains, including the Northeast Corridor, the most frequently delayed rail route in the country.

That means there will be fewer speed restrictions as well as more passengers on crowded trains. Often, delays exacerbate each other, making them difficult to address.

The losses are hitting at a time when other freight railroads and the fleet of privately owned cars coming onto the rails is growing, creating a competitive advantage in major US metropolitan areas for investors in those companies.

The biggest problem Amtrak is facing now isn’t in its tracks, cars or locomotives – it’s dealing with the huge numbers of requests from the federal government to get them as repair backlogs grow. “At some point, the subsidy has to be paid,” Cook said.

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