Amtrak is expecting to cut back service in the new year, with roughly 5% of its workforce running out of time to comply with the federal contractor vaccine mandate.
About 94% of Amtrak’s workforce was fully vaccinated at the beginning of the week and 96% have received at least one dose, according to president Stephen Gardner. But with a significant number still unvaccinated, Gardner said the railway company may have to cut the railway’s frequency of service in January to avoid staffing-related cancelations.
Amtrak employees have until Jan. 4 to comply with the federal mandate requiring full vaccination among government contract workers.
“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 Thursday’s testimony to a House of Representative committee. “(But) we anticipate that we will not initially have enough employees to operate all the trains we are currently operating when the federal mandate takes effect.”
Gardner said the changes will primarily affect long-distance services, and the company plans to restore all frequencies by March “or as soon as we have qualified employees available.” Amtrak aims to have “as few impacts to service as possible.”
Amtrak had more than 17,500 employees at the end of the fiscal year 2020, but workforce numbers have been dropping throughout the pandemic. Gardner said “many” engineers, conductors and on-board service employees retired or left during the pandemic, and Amtrak has temporarily halted hiring due to funding uncertainty and training difficulties under COVID-related distancing requirements.
Conversely, the pandemic has helped attract new passengers, with 30% of passengers in recent months making their first trip on Amtrak – double the pre-COVID average. Amtrak has since restored “most” of its services and is back to about 70% of its pre-pandemic ridership levels.
“We certainly do hope to get in that high 70s, 80% of our pre-COVID ridership this year as we restore all of our service over the course of the year, but it’s going to take several years,” Gardner said. “A lot depends on the pandemic a lot will depend on business travel. … We do feel confident that over the next several years we’ll be able to bring back that 32.5 million ridership we had attained (in 2019) and grow from there.”
► ‘Vaccine requirements work’:White House says 95% of federal employees have complied with vaccine mandate
Follow USA TODAY reporter Bailey Schulz on Twitter: @bailey_schulz.