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Empire Builder mothballed as strike looms

by JEREMY WEBER
Daily Inter Lake | September 14, 2022 3:02 PM

Rail riders will face difficulty making their way west from Montana for the time being after Amtrak announced Monday it shut down the Empire Builder route as a possible labor strike threatens to derail the nation’s freight train lines.

Amtrak’s first round of cancellations, announced on Twitter on Monday, began to hit U.S. stations Tuesday, with trips canceled on three long-distance trains connecting Chicago to the West Coast, including the Empire Builder route from Chicago to Seattle, Chicago to Los Angeles and Chicago to San Francisco. The carrier announced another round of cancellations for Wednesday on those routes and seven other long-distance routes.

The company said it was pulling the multi-day train trips “to avoid possible passenger disruptions while on route.”

“Amtrak is closely monitoring ongoing freight rail management-labor contract negotiations. While these negotiations do not involve Amtrak or the Amtrak workforce, many of our trains operate over freight railroad tracks,” Amtrak said on its website. “Because the parties have not yet reached a resolution, Amtrak has begun to make initial service adjustments in response to a possible freight railroad service interruption that could occur later this week.”

In the service alert Tuesday, the national railroad service promised to notify affected travelers at least 24 hours in advance and offer a full refund for canceled routes.

The 2,257-mile Empire Builder line makes stops in 46 cities in eight states, including 12 in Montana. According to a report released by Amtrak in 2020, the line carried 433,372 passengers in 2019, including 121,352 originating in Montana. Whitefish is the fifth busiest stop on the line, seeing 55,642 passengers in 2019 while Montana saw a total of 121,352.

Up to 15,000 railroad workers could go on strike Friday if a deal is not reached between several union organizations and railroad companies Union Pacific, CSX, Norfolk Southern, BNSF and Kansas City Southern. Amtrak, which operates on more than 21,000 miles of tracks, uses freight rails for many of its 300 daily trains.

Ten of 12 unions have reached agreements with a coalition representing the railroad companies. The remaining two unions, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen and the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers, represent 90,000 workers.

Montana Sen. Steve Daines is adamant that negotiators work out a solution quickly.

“The senator believes both sides need to come to an agreement which would allow Amtrak to resume canceled services as soon as possible. He believes we must prevent prolonged disruptions of the movement of goods and ensure Montanans’ access to reliable services and transportation is restored,” his office said Tuesday.

According to Amtrak, passengers on canceled trains are entitled to either a full refund or the option to reschedule their trip. Those affected by the cancellations can reschedule their trip by calling Amtrak at 1-800-872-7245.

Reporter Jeremy Weber can be reached at jweber@dailyinterlake.com.

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