- Amtrak is expected to cut service on some routes in January due to the federal mandate on the COVID-19 vaccine.
- About 95% of employees have received at least one dose of the vaccine, according to Amtrak president Stephen Gardner.
- Ridership on passenger rail service has rebounded to 70% of its pre-pandemic level.
Amtrak will have to cut passenger service starting in January, unless more employees meet the federal mandate on the COVID-19 vaccine that goes into effect in January, according to the Associated Press.
Amtrak Chairman Stephen Gardner told House lawmakers on Thursday that while about 95% of workers in the rail system have received at least one dose of the vaccine, the remaining employees face the deadline of 4 January that the company has put in place, reflecting the deadline that President Joe Biden has passed for employees of federal contractors.
In a setback for the administration, a judge on Tuesday blocked the federal mandate for vaccines for employees of federal contractors.
However, the White House has said it will vigorously defend its mandate for employees of federal contractors in court.
An Amtrak spokesperson told the Wall Street Journal that if the mandate was still blocked on January 4, the rail system’s mandate would remain in effect for that date.
Gardner detailed on Thursday the scheduling issues that are likely to arise until more employees are fully immunized.
“We plan to need to proactively temporarily reduce some train frequencies on our network in January to avoid staff-related cancellations – with our plan to fully restore all frequencies by March, or as soon as we have qualified employees available. “he told lawmakers at a press conference. House transport subcommittee hearing on railways, pipelines and hazardous materials.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki swept aside on Thursday any substantial impact on Amtrak caused by the vaccination mandate, noting that staff had been massively vaccinated against the coronavirus and noted that there were several weeks left before the deadline.
“What we have communicated to employers is after the deadline, we expect employers will follow their standard HR process,” she said at a press briefing. “This means that if an employee is not in compliance, they will have to take education, counseling, adaptation and enforcement courses. That would be what the process would be to play out.
She continued, “We don’t expect these requirements to disrupt the services people depend on. There is time to implement it.
The development comes as passenger rail service will receive unprecedented $ 66 billion in funding under the newly signed $ 1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill that was championed by Biden, a loyalist of ‘Amtrak who took the train religiously between his Delaware home and Washington DC when he served in the Senate.
At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic last year, Amtrak severely cut back on service due to low ridership; at one point, ridership on passenger rail service was 4% of its pre-pandemic level.
Gardner said Amtrak has restored the majority of its service and now has about 70% of its pre-pandemic traffic, but noted that it will take several years for ridership to resemble 2019 numbers.
Much of the rebound in traffic will depend on business travel, according to Gardner.
In fiscal 2021, Amtrak’s ridership was 12.2 million, compared to 32.5 million passengers in 2019.
For fiscal 2020, ending September 30, Amtrak carried 16.8 million passengers to destinations across the United States.
Amtrak hopes to hire around 2,500 to 3,500 employees by September 2022, but the company currently lacks the human resources staff needed to select and hire future employees, according to its own inspector general.
In August, Amtrak said employees should be vaccinated against COVID-19 or undergo weekly tests.
In September, Biden initially issued his mandate that federal workers and employees of federal contractors be fully immunized by December 8, before the deadline was extended to January 4.