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Home / News & Reviews / News Wire / Delayed return of ‘Cascades’ to Canada shows Amtrak employment challenges: Analysis (updated)

Delayed return of ‘Cascades’ to Canada shows Amtrak employment challenges: Analysis (updated)

By Bob Johnston | May 19, 2022

States’ slow moves to restore service, equipment choices also hinder hiring

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Blue and silver road-switcher locomotive on passenger train
Blue and silver road-switcher locomotive on passenger train
A P32-8 leads the morning Vancouver, B.C.-bound Amtrak Cascades, with Series VI Talgo equipment, at Bellingham, Wash., on Aug. 7, 2015. (Bob Johnston)

SEATTLE — In its determination to cut costs in 2020 and 2021 as the COVID-19 pandemic sucker-punched its prized Northeast Corridor moneymakers, Amtrak management turned off the hiring pipeline while furloughing employees nationwide.

But state-based decisions deferring resumption of regional round trips have exacerbated the situation, especially in efforts to hire operating personnel, as prospective employees weighed future job stability and working conditions in a tight labor market.

The decision to jettison decades of craft-exclusive institutional knowledge, even as federal relief funding poured in and national-network operations showed the most resilience in retaining ridership and generating revenue, has severely hampered Amtrak’s ability to restore service at a time when record-high gas prices have created an extraordinary opportunity to attract customers.

Outside of large, ornate passenger station
Vancouver’s Pacific Central Station, the northern terminus when Amtrak Cascades trains serve Canada. (Bob Johnston)

How debilitating the impact has been was revealed in a letter sent earlier this month to Washington and Oregon rail division heads by Ray Lang, Amtrak’s vice president, State Supported Services. In the letter, reproduced fully below, Lang enumerated reasons the company would not be able to run Amtrak Cascades trains to Vancouver, British Columbia, for six months [see “Amtrak Cascades service to Canada pushed back…,” Trains News Wire, May 16, 2022].

An assistant conductor class graduated nine participants in April that will be assigned to Pacific Northwest crew bases, Lang advised. “The Seattle crew base needs a minimum of three additional certified conductors who are qualified on the Seattle/Vancouver, B.C., route to return to Canada,” he wrote, adding that promotions from the assistant conductor ranks can take from six months to a year of route-specific qualifications. Thus, enough key operating employees won’t be available until November.

Twelve additional onboard service employees will be needed; a class was scheduled to begin May 9, but Lang says only three of 21 applicants had cleared background checks when the letter was written May 6.

On the maintenance side, six electricians, two carmen, and 14 coach cleaners are planned for Seattle and a mechanical department class is scheduled for June, but “collective bargaining agreements for electricians and carmen require a six-month mentoring period to hone their skills and maintenance practices before they can bid a supporting mechanical position,” Lang wrote.

Equipment shortage also a factor

Even if Amtrak had sufficient employees, there aren’t enough cars and locomotives available to restart a single Seattle-Vancouver, B.C., round trip, much less two.

People and luggage on fenced-off station platform
Cascades passengers unload in August, 2015, at the Vancouver, B.C., platform, which is sequestered from VIA Rail Canada operations to facilitate customs clearance. (Bob Johnston)

Though Washington Department of Transportation Secretary Roger Millar and his Oregon counterpart criticized Amtrak’s “lack of support,” it was Millar who rejected a deal in 2020 that would have brought three never-operated Talgo Series 8 trainsets to join two similar Oregon Series 8s on Cascades service. Instead, he opted to rely on Amtrak to provide aging Horizon equipment after slowly bringing back frequencies to the Seattle-Eugene, Ore., portion of the corridor.

The move removed knowledgeable Talgo supervisors and staff who executed maintenance procedures designed to keep all trainsets intact and operating rather than holding them out of service for scheduled overhauls.

Today, one Seattle-Portland and two Seattle-Eugene round trips are protected with just three Horizon sets and the two Talgos. This is one daily Seattle-Portland frequency short of what operated on the corridor in February 2020.

If two of the current five equipment sets are inoperable, as has happened several times in May so far, this is the bare minimum necessary to support existing Cascades service. One of the Talgos is scheduled to be laid up for weeks while undergoing an overhaul that might have been handled during several overnight sessions under the previous contract.

Before the pandemic, Amtrak regularly provided a Superliner set to cover one of two Seattle-Vancouver, B.C., round trips, but their limited supply has cut availability on virtually all long-distance trains, while the single-level fleet remains stretched thin [see “Siemens equipment delays aggravate Amtrak capacity issues …,” News Wire ,April 1, 2022].

UPDATE

In a response to this report, Washington DOT spokeswoman Janet Matkin forwarded a letter that the state transportation secretaries sent to Amtrak President and CEO Stephen Gardner on May 12. It notes that crews were requalified on the route in February 2022, equipment was identified to provide at least one daily round-trip, the Washington legislature allocated funding for the service, and the round trip would “resume as soon as Amtrak established protocols for verifying the vaccine status of passengers.” The letter says the states, “are willing to accept at least weekend service or a staggered service throughout the week until the resumption of full service. However, the states cannot accept Amtrak’s plan to provide no service at all.”

Matkin observed in an email to Trains News Wire that “new Amtrak staff originally hired to support the Cascades return to Canada has instead been assigned to support Amtrak’s long distance service.” However, there is no way to independently verify these would be the same crews used for the Empire Builder, which returns to daily departures next week. When asked whether a specific start date was ever targeted as the crews were requalified, whether there had been any response from Amtrak to last week’s letter, what equipment would be used, and what recourse the states would take if Amtrak stuck to the plan it outlined, Matkin responded, “We would prefer to not discuss details on contract negotiations between Amtrak and the states in the media. Once final decisions are made, we will share information with interested parties.”

(Update 3:10 p.m. CDT May 19  to reflect a response from the Washington Department of  Transportation.)

Canada routes from Eastern U.S. also in limbo

Meanwhile, Amtrak spokesman Jason Abrams tells Trains News Wire that the New York-Montreal Adirondack, the only Amtrak train still suspended after the March 2020 cuts, remains sidelined.

Train stops at open-air station shelter next to lake
In September 2016, the southbound Adirondack stops at Port Kent, NY, where a summer-only ferry connects passengers to and from Burlington, Vt. Amtrak has given no estimate when the New York-Montreal train will resume service north of Albany-Rensselaer, N.Y. (Bob Johnston)

“We are continuing to work with our partners to resolve ongoing challenges with operations, border facilities, security and staffing. We will share an estimated timeline when one becomes available,” says Abrams. He adds, “a combination of servicing, staffing, and train operations challenges” has prevented its restoration on the U.S. portion of the route as far north as Plattsburgh, N.Y.

VIA Rail Canada operates the Toronto-Niagara Falls, Ontario, segment of the Maple Leaf to and from New York City, but has not notified Amtrak when it intends to restore service.

Four daily buses between Seattle and Vancouver, B.C., in each direction can be booked on the Amtrak website, and there are also local buses as far as Bellingham, Wash., but there are no comparable substitutions offered for the Adirondack and Maple Leaf.

With challenges driven by decisions made over the last two years, pinpointing a date when trains will return is impossible to predict.

Full text of the letter from Amtrak’s Ray Lang:

Reproduction of letter from Amtraks's Ray Lang on delay in restarting Cascades service to Canada, page 1

Reproduction of letter on delay in restarting Cascades service to Canada, Page 2

16 thoughts on “Delayed return of ‘Cascades’ to Canada shows Amtrak employment challenges: Analysis (updated)

  1. This incompetent, myopic whoop-de-doo is never going to change, and we rail advocates are fools to think it will. Sky-high and climbing gas prices may be Amtrak’s best opportunity in years to grow the system and show it off to new riders, but they’ll blow it, as usual. Where is Congressional oversight? Where is all that money they were given? Do we know how much equipment is “out of service” for lack of people to put it back in service? If you keep betting on a horse that comes in last, is the problem with the horse or the bettor?

    1. Gas prices can climb sky high, but that’s one factor of many in choosing a mode. If there’s two or more peple in a car, considering all the various factors such as the value of your time, convenience, scheduling, etc., and the price of a rail ticket … if you have a car, the ability to drive a car (age, vision, etc.), and if the car will have an affordable or free parking space at the other end (as opposed to central New York, Manhattan, Washington DeeCee etc.) the car will win out every time.

      Public transportation (train, airplane, etc.) is a three-seat ride. My car is a one-seat ride. It takes an awful lot of gas price increase to get me out of my car and onto a train. And BTW, airlines and Amtrak also pay for fuel and build that into the cost of a ticket.

      If my wife and I want a day in downtown Chicago, we’ll take the train from Milwaukee. If we’re going to LaGrange for a train-watching picnic, where the parking is free, two in a car plus the dog, driving wins out by every calculation. The price of gas could triple and the answer would be the same.

      1. I stand by my statement. Sure, the Landeys and dog will drive unless they can fly, as will others, but many will consider Amtrak after filling the SUV. The opportunity is there.

  2. I partially agree with Charles about the price of gas, when I worked in Center City Philadelphia working midnight shift at Conrail my break even cost for gad was $8.00 per gallon. But what I think is the real joke today is that our government is paying people to stay home instead of working. I am now retired and drive a school bus 5 hours a day. We can’t get enough drivers to cover our runs and starting pay is close to $20 per hour. In the long run it probably would have been more cost effective for Amtrak to just keep their employees on the books.

    1. I thought paying people to stay home and not work to reduce COVID had ended last year. Additionally, the issue of childcare still exists and probably is still exacerbated by the COVID crisis, as many small daycare providers have not returned or returned at full capacity due to the worker shortage.

    1. Mr. Weagant, if you are referring to Stephen Gardner’s and the then-Amtrak President William Flynn’s September-October 2020 decisions that furloughed hundreds of employees who took with them their institutions knowledge and putting much eq into storage, well firing them (Flynn is already gone) is something the Biden administration could have done but chose not to. Gardner not only remains President AND CEO but out of term Board Chair Anthony Coscia, Gardner’s patron saint, was nominated to stay on as Chair. These two have been and still are wielding the wrecking ball Richard Anderson left them. “Amtrak Joe”, if he actually completes his term and nothing at Amtrak radically changes for the better, is likely to preside over Amtrak’s demise. And then the folks at NARP/RPA and their state affiliates can do their post-mortems and try to dodge responsibility.

  3. Almost every airline made the same calculations regarding staff and are dealing with many of the same problems. I’m not saying government is the solution, but private enterprise made the same choices and are seeing the same result. One group (airlines) was bailed out very early on in the pandemic under Trump. The other (Amtrak), was not until the American Rescue Plan was passed under the Biden admin.

  4. They could always do like some government agencies and onboard the employees while their background checks are still in process…if they’re going to wash out in the training process might as well go ahead and waste the money training them before the background check is completed as you’d waste the money either way. Also, sooner or later there won’t be anyone that passes a drug test to be hired…then what will they do?

  5. Nobody is getting paid to stay home anymore the labor shortage is here to stay nobody calculated the effect of the last waves of “boomers” exiting the workforce & Corp America is not is not prepared for the new attitude of the Y & Z generation & beyond who have been taught they are “special”. Their reduced numbers for the workforce will give them the upper hand for wages & benefits we could only have dreamed of, it will no longer be just what can you bring to the company but what can the company do for me!

  6. I still think WDOT and Amtrak (along with Sounder) decided to make Talgo the “fall guy” for the accident, to point away from especially WDOT’s errors. This would explain WDOT refusing the 3 Talgo train sets from Wisconsin which would have filled the void from the Series 6 Talgos. I think this also explains why they had the Series 6 train sets so quickly scrapped, a needless waste.

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