'I felt terrible': Travelers stuck in limbo as they wait for Amtrak to restore canceled trips

Eve Chen

Jenna Johnson-Hall should have been getting ready for a long-awaited trip to see her partner and meet her partner's family. Instead, she spent much of Thursday waiting to find out if she would be able to take the trip at all. 

Like Amtrak customers across the country, her long-distance train was canceled Wednesday as Amtrak braced for a possible freight rail strike over working conditions, pay, and other benefits like paid sick leave.

The strike was averted with a tentative union deal, but Johnson-Hall and others were still unsure what was next for them.

"Amtrak is working to quickly restore canceled trains and reaching out to impacted customers to accommodate on first available departures," Amtrak, which was not involved with the freight negotiations, told USA TODAY.

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An Amtrak train is seen at Union Station in Washington, DC, on April 22, 2022.

Johnson-Hall said she called Amtrak early Thursday as soon as she heard the strike was off.

"They told me that they had no new information for me and to call back around 11 or 12 (MDT) to see if the train that I was supposed to take had been reinstated," she said. When she did, Johnson-Hall said Amtrak still didn't have any answers and asked her to call back in a few more hours. Amtrak was eventually able to rebook her. 

She has already waited a long time. Johnson-Hall said it took her four months to save enough money for this trip from Utah to Illinois.

"I felt terrible. I had been working really hard," she said. "To find out that all of that work and planning and getting a hotel and everything (may) have been completely for nothing was devastating."

Her partner, Robynn Lynch, says it has been stressful, but she knows the whole ordeal is a lot bigger than them.

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"As stressful as it was, I was on the union side," she said. "The way I saw it, the work that was put on those people was extreme, and the (threat of a) strike is what they needed to get things working. And it was just unfortunate that it happened, that it affected me, but they did what they needed to do."

President Joe Biden had told negotiators that "a shutdown is unacceptable" because of the ripple effects it would have across the country, including on the nation's supply chain and passenger rail.

"I don't think their intention was to ... ruin the economy and ruin all these things for people," Lynch said. "I had all the faith in the world that things would get worked out."

She also had faith that she'd see Johnson-Hall, even if it's a little late.

"I had been really wanted it to be on our actual anniversary because I thought it would be cute to see each other for the first time in basically forever on our actual one-year anniversary," Johnson-Hall said. "And then I could give her the anniversary gift that I'd ordered in person instead of it being where she opens it over a video call like we normally do." 

Why would a freight railroad strike affect passenger trains?

Although Amtrak operates services across the country, it actually owns very few of the tracks it uses. Many of its trains outside the Northeast Corridor between Boston and Washington use lines that are controlled by freight railroads. So a strike by workers on those railroads could affect Amtrak's ability to operate in their territory.

Freight rail workers have been negotiating a contract for three years. In announcing the tentative union agreement early Thursday, Biden said it would provide rail workers "better pay, improved working conditions, and peace of mind around their health care costs: all hard-earned."

What routes are affected?

Amtrak's cancellations affected all long-distance trains beginning on Thursday, including the Auto Train between Virginia and Florida, and other interstate routes.

What am I entitled to if my train was canceled?

The railroad is offering full refunds for any canceled trains or will move the reservation to another travel date without charging fare differences through Oct. 31. 

Contributing: Zach Wichter, Joey Garrison