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Passenger rail systems dodge crisis as strike threat likely averted

Sept. 15, 2022 Updated Thu., Sept. 15, 2022 at 7:50 a.m.

Passengers, including Alexis Jarrett following Frances George, board a train at the Monocacy MARC station Thursday morning, hours after a tentative agreement was reached to avert a national freight rail strike that would have slowed or stopped passenger and commuter traffic. The two women from Hagerstown, Md., had three contingency plans if the strike happens.   (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)
Passengers, including Alexis Jarrett following Frances George, board a train at the Monocacy MARC station Thursday morning, hours after a tentative agreement was reached to avert a national freight rail strike that would have slowed or stopped passenger and commuter traffic. The two women from Hagerstown, Md., had three contingency plans if the strike happens.  (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)
By Luz Lazo Washington Post

U.S. passenger rail systems dodged a crisis Thursday as the White House announced a tentative agreement to avert a national rail strike that had threatened to disrupt travel for hundreds of thousands of Americans.

The agreement, which has yet to be ratified, came a day before a possible strike of freight railroad workers that would have halted much of the nation’s passenger rail operations. The developments early Thursday quickly translated to relief among passengers, and intercity and commuter rail systems facing service shutdowns.

Amtrak said it is working to resume service that was suspended ahead of a potential work stoppage. The passenger rail began suspending service Tuesday, then all of its long-distance and some state-supported trains were canceled Thursday amid the threat of the strike. This included the Empire Builder that runs from Chicago to Seattle and Portland through Spokane.

“Amtrak is working to quickly restore canceled trains and reaching out to impacted customers to accommodate on first available departures,” the passenger railroad said in a statement.

It is unclear if any of the day’s departures would be restored, but the company said it would provide updates to passengers.

Major regional rail systems had also been warning commuters about possible service shutdowns beginning as early as Thursday evening. Officials with those agencies said they were following the negotiations closely to determine the potential effects on their operations - ready to suspend service if a strike occurred.

The labor dispute over pay and working conditions between freight railroads and unions representing their workers had dragged for months. Workers this week were demanding greater flexibility to miss work for medical emergencies and other reasons without fear of being disciplined. Negotiators had until 12:01 a.m. Friday to reach a deal to avoid a significant hit to the economy.

Most Amtrak routes outside the Northeast Corridor and about half of commuter rail systems in the United States operate at least partially on tracks or rights of way owned by freight railroads. Those freight tracks likely wouldn’t have been available to passenger trains in the event of a widespread strike.

Davin Peterson, a Woodbridge, Va., resident who takes the Virginia Railway Express commuter rail into the nation’s capital, said alerts earlier in the week about a possible VRE shutdown Friday worried him. Peterson had been weighing his options to get to work at the Library of Congress on Friday, considering a commuter bus instead of driving.

On Thursday, he said he was relieved a resolution had been reached before a strike brought widespread disruption.

“The rail strike would have hurt our economy and halted passenger rail service around the country,” he said.

DJ Stadtler, executive director of the Virginia Passenger Rail Authority, which oversees passenger service in the state, called the tentative agreement “welcome news” for the growing number of Virginias who depend on Amtrak and commuter rail routes. Amtrak on Wednesday night had announced plans to shut down service to the state starting Thursday.

Transit advocates had warned that failed negotiations would have had grave consequences, essentially leading to the ceasing of intercity passenger trains outside of the Northeast Corridor. On Thursday, Jim Mathews, president and chief executive of the Rail Passengers Association, welcomed news of a deal.

“This is a significant win for everyone who depends on trains, whether to get to work or home or to get the stuff they buy,” he said.

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