Why would a freight railroad strike affect Amtrak?

If you’ve been following the news in the US today, I’m sure you’ve heard that freight railroad engineers and conductors threatening to go on strike. But in case you haven’t, or aren’t in the US, here you go:

The story mentions that the strike could, among other things, disrupt Amtrak passenger service, and Amtrak has preemptively canceled trains in anticipation of the strike. The explanation given in the story is that Amtrak trains run on tracks owned by the freight companies. But I still don’t understand why that would prevent Amtrak trains from running. They have their own engineers and conductors, so why would freight employees striking prevent them from using the freight company’s rails? Are there other workers needed for the trains to be able to run safely, maybe dispatchers, who will also be striking?

I assume the freight trains will be parked in rail yards while the strike is going on, right? It’s not like the trains are just going to be stopped wherever they happen to be when the strike starts, right? Or is that exactly what they’re planning to do? If that’s the case then yeah, I can see how a freight train parked on the tracks would disrupt Amtrak.

I’ve been wondering the same myself. My guess is that track maintenance would not be occurring either.

I am guessing this is the case. I am planning a bike trip next week that involves Amtrak’s Capitol Corridor service from Sacramento to the SF Bay Area (which is now in question). Here is what CC is saying:

Relevant section (altho it does not specify what “passenger operations” involves):

Currently, the nation’s Class I freight carriers, including Union Pacific Railroad (UPRR), are in dispute with their unions and are in negotiations. If a strike is called, freight and passenger operations on corridors managed by freight railroads would cease, including the UPRR lines on which Capitol Corridor operates.

Let me ask a question which may be relevant or not.

If the on-board staff of a train in transit go on strike at x o’clock, where do they put the train? Are they expected to stay “on the job” until they finish the run? Until they get to a yard? Do they stop the train wherever it is (within safe limits), shut down and brake down, and walk away?

Regardless, I can see a lot of freight trains suddenly no longer in motion being an impediment to trying to operate any other train over the shared infrastructure.

I’d say that’s the main thing. Amtrak is still reliant on the parent railroad’s dispatching and signal systems. It’d be like flying to an airport when the ATC tower is closed. Technically possible perhaps, but not worth the risk.

I don’t think it is a freight railroad strike specifically. It is 2 of the unions in the NCCC; the BLET and SMART-TD unions. 9 of the unions have reached a deal while another union might strike in 2 weeks.

BLET as far as I can tell is a union of engineers and conductors – some of which work for Amtrak. SMART-TD might include Centralized Traffic Control – it seems to include a lot of roles. I think BLE-RCTC might be the primary Centralized Traffic Control union.

(This is not my area of expertise, just the result of some amateur googling. Please take this all with a grain of salt.)

This is a good article:

Amtrak passenger speaking up here. I actually have a trip planned for next week.

Several days prior to this hitting the news Amtrak contacted me about my original reservation which had to be changed as the train route I was originally going to take was cancelled. I have to say, I was really happy with the customer service aspect involved in making new arrangements, it was really stellar.

Anyhow - part of the problem is that a lot of Amtrak routes go over rails actually owned by the freight companies. If the freight workers are on strike there could be issues with switching and scheduling. When traveling by train, if the Amtrak does not reach a certain point by a certain time it can be routed to a siding, with the freight given priority over passenger service (this has happened to me several times while traveling by rail, and it’s one reason why train arrival times should be treated as suggestions and not carved in stone).

Some parts of some routes run over single-track rail. That’s just what it sounds like - just one set of tracks, used by trains going in both directions. Of course scheduling is vital under such conditions to ensure untimely physical meetings of trains does not occur. If a freight train is parked (due to a strike or other reason) in some parts of the system NO train can pass in either direction.

Now, I’m an not conversant enough with all the details to know what parts/routes/trains are affected by which factors, but clearly these are considerations.

Well… I actually do know how such a thing is done, flying to an airport when an ATC facility is closed. It is possible to do so safely BUT it severely reduces the capacity of said airport as far as number of take-offs/landings per hour. Under such circumstances decisions would need to be made regarding which flights are a priority and should be allowed to fly and which ones should make other arrangements.

I presume something similar would apply during a major rail strike - either nothing moves or, if the system still retains a limited capacity, decisions would need to be made in regards to priorities and importance. In the greater scheme of things, much as I would find it annoying, transporting food and fuel around the nation is more important than my going to visit friends next week. I accept that, even if I’m not happy about it.

(If anyone is wondering - I have back up plans in case my current train reservation is cancelled. Because I’m like that.)

I would think they would not start any journey the day or two prior that may leave them in between yards if the strike might commence during that transit. You may be comparing this to the situation where the crew has their shift end and they are not allowed to proceed until a relief crew is brought to where they are, no matter where they are.

I was just reading CNN’s story about this. IIRC: trains traveling at 12:01 AM are supposed to stop where they are, somebody with car will pick crew up. So there will be trains occupying track, which definitely blocks Amtrak. At least one company says they will have management driving super-critical trains, like water purification plant supplies. So, trains moving with less experienced crew and less people in atc-equivalents. I wouldn’t WANT to ride Amtrak under those conditions.

I don’t think it said anything about what will happen to train signals, track switching, etc.

How you think they gonna run all that pig iron down into New Orleans?

Just great - with any sort of bad luck that will happen in our local town with a bajillion rail lines (really - we’re sort of known for that.) and we’ll have freights cutting off access to multiple roads in town.

Strike averted:

So the strike’s been averted, but having taken Amtrak’s California Zephyr back in May, I know some of those tracks are literally in the middle of nowhere. How would that have worked if the train was on some really remote stretch of track when the clock struck 12:01? Would someone drive off-road out to the train to pick up the crew? That might not even be possible in some mountainous areas. Or would they proceed to the nearest road and leave the train there?

Ironically one of the staffing issues freight railroads have is engineers & conductors quitting and going to Amtrak for better working conditions.

Rest easy. At least until the vote.

Wouldn’t these trains also be blocked by the others parked?

The conductor’s union has voted no to the tentative agreement. It goes back to bargaining with the carriers until Dec. 8th, and then they can strike, or the carriers can lockout on the 9th. Railroads are kind of forgotten now, the general public thinks it’s just trucks. Witness the trucker worship during the Covid lockdowns. Rail may not carry many finished consumer goods, but what they do carry will not be able to be made up by trucks if a strike happens.

The carriers refuse to budge on any of the sticking points so expect a strike. The carriers are hoping that congress will force the conductors back to work under a contract that is favorable to them. Expect major supply chain disruptions.

It’s funny that any other time these big railroad companies don’t want government involved in their business, but they rely on government when they want to squash workers.

In the EV thread, I’ve brought up how the railroads should be electrified. They don’t want government involved in that though, and that’s why it has not been done on a major scale in the US.

The next few weeks are going to be intresting.

We’re about to go through the same mess in the airline biz, but probably 6-12 months from now at the earliest. Our labor relations are governed by the same laws as yours are: the Railway Labor Act (RLA).

Airlines love for the government to butt out, up until they need government intervention to swat those pesky unions, in which case government intervention is the greatest invention since sliced bread.

What are the sticking points, currently? Are the unions asking for something unreasonable? I recall from earlier some of what they wanted was stuff like being able to take time-off for doctor appointments without getting penalized and having a more predictable schedule. I hope the cost of those things is squared against the massive disruption a strike is going to cause.

This article, from Trains Magazine, indicates that it’s largely around working conditions (which it sounds like were not part of the negotiated agreement) and paid time off: