BNSF, CSX, Norfolk Southern, and Union Pacific announced embargoes on certain shipments earlier this week as negotiations continue with multiple rail unions. Amtrak, whose employees are not involved with the negotiations, operates largely on track maintained and dispatched by freight companies.
Amtrak is “hopeful that parties will reach a resolution,” although the company “has now begun phased adjustments to our service in preparation for a possible freight rail service interruption later this week,” according to a statement provided to Reuters.
Trains servicing Seattle, Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami, San Antonio, New Orleans, San Francisco, and other major cities are subject to cancellation. Amtrak will only operate trains this week if they “will have enough time to reach their final destinations” before Friday.
However, travel in the Northeast Corridor — which includes Boston, New York City, Washington D.C., and related branch lines in Pennsylvania and New York — will be largely unaffected since Amtrak operates most of the routes.
The Biden administration created a Presidential Emergency Board via executive order two months ago to facilitate the negotiations, while Labor Secretary Marty Walsh met with union leaders and rail company executives on Wednesday morning. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) affirmed on Monday that Congress, which has the authority to block strikes, would intervene “if needed.”
“There is a role for Congress if in fact they fail to reach an agreement,” Hoyer remarked. “Obviously a railroad strike at this point in time would be extraordinarily detrimental to our economy and the American people. And we want to avoid that.”
Indeed, supply chain bottlenecks caused by labor shortages and worldwide government lockdowns have impacted the American economy over the past two years, worsening inflationary pressures as consumer goods fail to reach shelves.
“We have made crystal clear to the interested parties the harm that American families, businesses and farmers, and communities would experience if they were not to reach a resolution,” White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters on Tuesday, adding that the administration is working with shipping, trucking, and air freight companies to “see how they can step in and keep goods moving in case of this rail shutdown.”
Two major rail unions — the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET) and SMART Transportation Division (SMART-TD) — have declined the tentative deal to resume operations. The International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM), whose leadership originally approved the framework, announced on Wednesday that its members had voted against the deal.
Industry groups are concerned that other transportation methods do not presently have the capacity to carry freight typically handled by rail companies. The daily economic cost of a nationwide rail shutdown could amount to $2 billion, according to a report from the Association of American Railroads.
Last month, the White House proposed increasing railroad employee pay by 24% over the next two years — a measure that would lead to an average raise of $11,000 per employee. “An agreement based on these terms would lead to the largest general wage increase in nearly 40 years,” Association of American Railroads CEO Ian Jefferies said in a statement.