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Amtrak soon will have to make temporary reductions in service once the federal COVID-19 vaccination mandate takes effect next month, the railroad's president informed Congress yesterday.
Amtrak President Stephen Gardner told the House Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials that the railroad doesn't expect it will have enough people to operate all the trains it's currently operating after the Jan. 4 vaccination deadline.
As a federal contractor, Amtrak is required to comply with the mandate, which states that employees of government contractors be fully vaccinated by Jan. 4.
"Amtrak has strongly advocated that all our employees to be vaccinated and we have made great progress in achieving this important public health goal," Gardner said in his prepared testimony. "As of the beginning of this week, 94% of our employees have been fully vaccinated, and 96% have received at least one vaccination dose."
However, Amtrak is facing a worker shortage for other reasons, as well. Many engineers, conductors and on-board service employees retired or left Amtrak during the pandemic. Also, the railroad earlier instituted a temporary hiring freeze when the future of its federal funding was uncertain. Those issues, combined with the number of people who probably won't be vaccinated by Jan. 4, "will likely necessitate temporary frequency reductions, primarily for our long-distance services," Gardner said.
The service reduction will be felt primarily across Amtrak's long-distance services because of smaller crew bases at intermediate points along multi-day routes where engineers and conductors report to work, he added.
"At some of these crew bases across our network, we have a relatively high percentage of unvaccinated employees," said Gardner. "If those employees chose to not get vaccinated by the deadline, we will not have sufficient trained staff to support current service frequency on affected routes, as engineers and conductors must undergo extensive training both when hired or promoted and to become qualified on the characteristics of each route on which they work."Amtrak next week will announce where the service cuts will be so that riders can rebook their trips, Gardner added.Meanwhile, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET) and the Transportation Division of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers (SMART-TD) earlier this week announced they've filed for preliminary injunctions in an effort to immediately halt the COVID-19 vaccination mandate at Amtrak and require the railroad to negotiate the issue.
The BLET and SMART-TD seek to restore and preserve the status quo that was in place prior to the implementation of the mandates, union leaders said in a joint press release.
The suit filed Dec. 8 is a follow-up to two complaints filed Nov. 23 against Amtrak, alleging in part that the railroad's vaccine mandate is a "direct violation" of the Railway Labor Act.