Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Amtrak strike could close Union Station to Metra riders

I'm an Amtrak fan and it hurts to see this. Yeah I suppose one can argue that government should get out of the passenger rail business and that unions are bad/or worthless. Still this is the reality and I wonder if a strike could seriously hurt Amtrak in the years to come. From Crain's...
Commuters stranded from Virginia to Massachusetts. Train service shut down at major terminals in Chicago, New York and Boston. A flood of extra cars on congested highways around Washington and San Francisco.
Come Jan. 31, that nightmare could become a reality unless a longstanding 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 workers do walk out, the 71,000 people who take Amtrak every day won't be the only ones who'll suffer. Hundreds of thousands of people who ride commuter trains will join them, since many such services depend on Amtrak employees or infrastructure, particularly in the Northeast.

About 80,000 Metra rides a day are taken on trains going into and out of Union Station, which would be closed. Six of Metra’s 11 routes operate from the station, including the Burlington Northern Santa Fe service to Aurora, which carries Metra’s biggest passenger load.

Metra said Tuesday it has approached Amtrak and the railroad's unions about whether they’d agree to let Metra continue running trains from the station at Canal and Adams streets during a strike. A spokeswoman for Metra says the commuter rail service would take on only those operations at the station that are absolutely necessary to keep Metra trains moving.

Talks are continuing and there is no agreement at this time.

“Our No. 1 goal is avoid stopping the operations of our trains,” the Metra spokeswoman said. “We’re keeping an eye on (the negotiations) and certainly hope a strike wouldn’t happen.”

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. Amtrak, which relies on federal subsidies, is worried about whether it can afford the back pay.

Under the Railway Labor Act, 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.

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

Just over half of NJ Transit's 740 weekday trains travel for all or part of their routes on lines 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. East of Manhattan, the vast majority — about 85,000 — of the Long Island Rail Road's 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 would face similar problems in Chicago and Boston, where the hubs at Union Station and South Station would close.

On the West Coast, Caltrain, which uses trains staffed by Amtrak to move an average of 36,000 riders a day between San Francisco and San Jose, Calif., would be shut down.

Commuter rail operators have been scrambling to come up with backup plans. But they emphasized that any such plans would provide, at best, a partial fix.
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.
Oh wait so many commuter railroads are going to be affected because of this potential strike. It could result in these services being forced to not use major Amtrak terminals such as Chicago's Union Station. And I was right Amtrak could be crippled by this strike especially because of concern about Amtrak paying back wages.

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