Amtrak suspends all long-distance routes, effective Thursday, as the passenger railroad prepares for a possible freight rail strike. File photo by Lee Snider Photo Images/Shutterstock
Sept. 14 (UPI) -- Amtrak canceled all of its long-distance trains starting Thursday, leaving passengers to scramble for other transportation, as hundreds of thousands of freight rail workers threaten to strike by the end of the week.
A federally mandated "cooling off" period will end on Friday, opening the door for about 115,000 freight rail union workers to walk off the job in what would be the first national rail strike in 30 years.
The long-distance cancellations are the latest this week, announced by Amtrak, as the passenger railroad adjusts its schedules in preparation for a potential strike. Amtrak operates most of its 21,000 miles, outside the Northeast, "on track owned, maintained and dispatched by freight railroads."
President Joe Biden and his administration have been active in talks between the railroad companies and unions to ward off the potential strike that could sever supply chains and stall the economy. Labor Secretary Marty Walsh met Wednesday with rail company executives and union leaders in Washington, D.C.
Approximately 4,900 members of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers District 19 voted Wednesday to reject their tentative agreement with the National Carriers' Conference Committee and authorize a strike.
Six of the largest freight rail companies have reached agreements with eight of the 12 rail worker unions. Two of the largest unions, representing conductors and engineers, are holding out for 15 days of paid sick time, as well as better working conditions.
"All parties need to stay at the table, bargain in good faith to resolve outstanding issues, and come to an agreement," a Labor Department spokesperson said. "The fact that we are already seeing some impacts of contingency planning by railways again demonstrates that a shutdown of our freight rail system is an unacceptable outcome for our economy and the American people, and all parties must work to avoid that."
Amtrak's cancellations, starting Thursday, include the Auto Train, Capitol Limited, Cardinal and the Palmetto. All routes run between the Washington, D.C. area and Florida, Pittsburgh, Chicago and Georgia.
On Tuesday, Amtrak suspended three of its longest routes, which include the Southwest Chief, California Zephyr and Empire Builder trains that run between Chicago and the West Coast.
Amtrak canceled seven more routes Wednesday, including the City of New Orleans, Coast Starlight, Crescent, Lake Shore Limited, Silver Star, Sunset Limited and Texas Eagle.
Most travel within the Northeast corridor, including Boston, New York and Washington, D.C., will not be affected Thursday. Acela will also operate a full schedule.
Amtrak said it plans to contact all customers impacted by the cancellations. Passengers can change their travel dates or request a full refund without cancellation fees. Any fare increases will be waived for departures through Oct. 31.