Tri-State braces for Amtrak strike

Amtrak strike could cripple commuter rail service across the US
January 17, 2008 12:38:27 PM PST
Suburban commuters stranded from Virginia to Massachusetts. Train service shut down at New York's Pennsylvania Station and Chicago's Union Station. A flood of extra cars on already congested highways around Washington and San Francisco.For more details on how commuter rail services would be affected by the strike, click here.

Come Jan. 30, that nightmare could be a reality unless a long-standing labor dispute between Amtrak and nine unions is resolved.

There has never been a strike in Amtrak's 36-year history, and it's still likely that one will be averted, either through a last-minute deal or intervention by Congress.

But if the workers do walk out, the 71,000 people who take Amtrak every day won't be the only ones who suffer. Hundreds of thousands of people who ride commuter trains will have their plans disrupted, since many such services depend on Amtrak employees or infrastructure, particularly in the Northeast.

The dispute involves about 10,000 employees whose last contract ended Dec. 31, 1999. After years of unsuccessful mediation, a presidential emergency board issued a report on the dispute Dec. 30, triggering a 30-day countdown until a strike becomes legal.

Siding with the unions, the board recommended that wage increases be made retroactive. But Amtrak, which relies on federal subsidies, is worried about how it will afford the back pay.

Under the Railway Labor Act, which governs both the rail and aviation industries, most disputes that get to this point end with a contract based on the emergency board's report. In cases when that doesn't happen, Congress usually imposes the board's recommendations.

Still, transportation officials across the country are bracing for the worst.

If a strike does occur, the biggest impact likely would be felt around New York City, where two major services, New Jersey Transit and the Long Island Rail Road, would be disrupted.

Sen. Schumer released the following statement:

"An Amtrak strike would be devastating to the Northeast and would literally bring the entire transportation network to a screeching halt. With sky high gas prices and unbearable flight delays, this is the last thing travelers need. The PEB decision is a roadmap for prompt settlement and Amtrak and the unions must use this opportunity to get back to the table, roll up their sleeves and not leave until a deal is done. Amtrak service is vital to New York and the nation, and it is long past time that the differences are reconciled."

Just over half of NJ Transit's 740 weekday trains travel for all or part of their routes on tracks owned by Amtrak; if Amtrak employees aren't at work, trains can't run on those tracks. Some 218,000 daily trips are taken on the affected lines.

The Long Island Rail Road also is anticipating major disruptions. The vast majority - about 85,000 - of its morning rush-hour passengers travel to Penn Station, where Amtrak owns the tracks and handles the dispatching. Without the use of its only Manhattan terminal, the LIRR faces the prospect of thousands of extra customers overwhelming smaller stations in Queens as they get off to transfer to the subway.

Train riders will face similar problems in Chicago and Boston, where the hubs at Union Station and South Station would close.

On the West Coast, Caltrain, which carries an average of 36,000 riders a day between San Francisco and San Jose, Calif., would be shut down. The trains are staffed by Amtrak employees under an agreement between the national railroad and a regional authority.

Commuter rail operators have been scrambling to come up with contingency plans to offer riders alternatives. But they emphasized that any such plans would provide, at best, a partial fix.

"There is simply no way to replicate the capacity that would be lost during an Amtrak strike," NJ Transit spokesman Dan Stessel said. "The contingency plan will provide customers who absolutely must travel with the ability to do so during limited hours. It will not be a complete replacement of the service that would be lost."

At New York's Penn Station, 22-year-old student Deann Stout said a strike would mean making the more than 60-mile trip from her home in Trenton, N.J., to school in the city by car - an expensive proposition.

"Gas money, toll bridges, parking," she listed, estimating the trip would cost her at least $30 a day, more than double NJ Transit's $264 student monthly pass.

Donna Dibbern, a law firm receptionist from Halifax, Mass., said she would probably ask her husband, who is retired, to drive her to work in Boston if there was a strike.

"I don't drive to Boston. The traffic is so bad," she said. "I wouldn't work in Boston if it wasn't for the train."

Riders on a slew of smaller services around the country also would feel the impact. The Virginia Railway Express and Connecticut's Shore Line East would grind to a halt. Maryland's MARC service would have its most popular line shut down and would have to make do without Washington's Union Station. Commuters in Philadelphia could face the loss of six rail lines.

If commuter rail is curtailed by a strike, people who typically drive would see the roads suddenly get a lot more crowded, officials warned.

The Virginia Railway Express is a relatively small service, with about 15,000 weekday boardings. But it provides an alternative to two of the most crowded highways in the Washington area, home to some of the nation's worst traffic.

"We're removing a lane of traffic from I-95 or I-66 per hour," VRE spokesman Mark Roeber said. "If that weren't there, I can imagine the commute would be pretty miserable."

It's the prospect of widespread misery that makes rail operators hopeful that a strike won't be allowed to occur.

"No. 1, you hope that Congress steps in," said Jawauna Greene, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Transit Administration. If it doesn't, "we'll triage to the best of our ability," she added.

Lawmakers, however, are still pushing Amtrak and the unions to resolve the dispute on their own.

"I urge the parties to return to the bargaining table as soon as possible and reach a fair agreement as soon as possible that genuinely reflects the indispensable contributions of Amtrak's hardworking employees," Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., said in a statement. Kennedy chairs the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, which would be involved in any congressional intervention.

Talks between Amtrak and the unions are scheduled to resume Wednesday.

How commuter rail services would be affected by an Amtrak strike:

About 218,000 trips per day are taken on trains that travel at least partly on tracks owned by Amtrak. Those tracks would be off-limits during a strike. Spokesman Dan Stessel says the agency would encourage carpooling and telecommuting. The agency also would provide shuttle bus service between some of its stations and stops on the separate PATH train system, which also goes into New York City.

The LIRR would not be able to use Penn Station, its Manhattan terminal. Of the 100,000 customers that ride the LIRR during the morning rush hour, about 85,000 of them have Penn Station as a final destination, spokesman Sam Zambuto says. He says the LIRR is developing contingency plans.

Metro-North, which carries commuters between New York City and the northern suburbs and Connecticut, would not be affected because it owns its own tracks and operates out of Grand Central Terminal, not Penn Station.

South Station, Boston's largest train station and the main hub for commuters coming into Boston from suburbs south and west of Boston, would be shut down. There would be no service between Boston and Providence, R.I., because that line, which carries about 17,000 riders a day, is dispatched by Amtrak employees. The MBTA says any contingency plan could accommodate only about 25 percent of the 47,000 passengers a day who use South Station.

About 80,000 Metra rides a day are taken on trains going into and out of Union Station, which would be closed. Metra spokeswoman Judy Pardonnet says the railroad has been talking to Amtrak and the unions about the possibility of keeping Union Station open for Metra use only. If that's not possible, some riders could be accommodated on other lines, she says.

Five of the 13 regional rail lines operated by SEPTA run on Amtrak's tracks, and a sixth can only be accessed through an interlocking controlled by Amtrak, SEPTA spokesman Felipe Suarez says. The agency is still working on contingency plans.

MARC'S Penn line, which carries about 19,000 riders a day between Baltimore and Washington, is operated by Amtrak employees and would be totally shut down. Two other lines could continue to operate, but would have to terminate before Washington's Union Station, which would be closed to trains. Riders on those lines would likely transfer to the already crowded Metro subway system.

VRE is operated by Amtrak employees and would be completely shut down. It provides about 15,000 rides a day between the outer suburbs of northern Virginia and Washington. Spokesman Mark Roeber says VRE is looking at the possibility of running buses to the Metro.

Amtrak runs this service under a contract with the Connecticut Department of Transportation. About 2,000 passengers a day travel on the line between New Haven and New London. Department spokesman Judd Everhart says the contingency plan calls for using about 30 buses to carry passengers in case of a strike.

This service between San Francisco and San Jose is also run by Amtrak employees and would shut down. Its average weekday ridership is 36,000. Spokeswoman Mary Knuckles says it would be up to riders to find alternatives.

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