Metra warns of service interruptions if freight railway strike happens

Amtrak suspended routes from Chicago to Los Angeles, Chicago to Seattle and Chicago to San Francisco. It also suspended trains running from Los Angeles to San Antonio.

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Metra commuters at Union Station on Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2022.

Metra commuters at Union Station on Tuesday. A possible strike by freight railroad workers, which could occur Friday, would immediately disrupt service on four of Metra’s lines.

Brian Rich/Sun-Times

Tim Neumann takes Metra into Chicago from his Hinsdale home two or three times a week for work, so he wasn’t too happy Tuesday about news that a strike might disrupt his commute.

“I’d have to drive, and pay for parking, pay for gas, and it wouldn’t be pleasant,” Neumann said. “Hopefully, it doesn’t happen.”

That potential strike by freight railroad workers would disrupt travel by Amtrak and some Metra lines, since both passenger carriers use tracks owned by freight railroads.

It could hit as soon as Friday, affecting more than 80,000 weekday Metra riders — over 60% of Metra’s 131,000 weekday riders. Those are estimates based on Metra’s ridership data from last Wednesday.

Four of Metra’s 11 lines will be suspended upon a strike — BNSF, Union Pacific North, Union Pacific Northwest and Union Pacific West, said spokesman Michael Gillis.

Gillis said these lines will be affected immediately because they are owned by or directly operated by freight railroads.

“If the work stoppage occurs, we expect there will not be service on these lines,” Gillis said.

It’s not a prospect Neumann wants to contemplate. Hinsdale is on the BNSF route, so he would be affected right away. And he much prefers taking Metra to driving his car to work.

“It’s very consistent, as opposed to traffic when you drive,” Neumann said.

Two lines that Metra owns, Electric and Rock Island, won’t be affected by a strike and will continue operating as usual, Gillis said.

That means Eric Kelly’s commute won’t necessarily be affected.

Kelly, 49, works in Joliet and takes a Metra train out there a couple of times a week. That city is served by both the Rock Island and Heritage Corridor lines.

As a former member of the Chicago Teachers Union, he supports what the Metra workers are doing even if that means trains are stopped.

“Whatever they’re looking for, I support it 100%. So if that meant that I couldn’t get down to be face-to-face with my people at work, I still support what they’re doing. I understand that idea of solidarity and making sure things are fair,” he said.

The other line serving Joliet, the Heritage Corridor, along with the other four remaining Metra lines — Milwaukee North, Milwaukee West, North Central Service and Southwest Service — remain in limbo. These lines use tracks that are owned by, intersect with tracks or are dispatched by freight railroads. Metra is still working with those partners to understand how it will be impacted, Gillis said.

The possibility of a strike is also being felt at Amtrak, which relies heavily on freight railways. Amtrak preemptively canceled long-distance train routes mostly heading out of Chicago in order to prevent its passenger trains from being stranded.

“While we are hopeful that parties will reach a resolution, Amtrak has now begun phased adjustments to our service in preparation for a possible freight rail service interruption later this week,” Amtrak said in a statement. “Such an interruption could significantly impact intercity passenger rail service.”

Amtrak passengers at Union Station on Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2022.

Amtrak passengers at Union Station on Tuesday. The passenger railroad already has suspended service on several long-distance routes that originate in Chicago in anticipation of a potential strike by freight railroad workers. Amtrak relies on tracks owned by freight carriers for the vast majority of its routes.

Brian Rich/Sun-Times

On Tuesday, the passenger rail agency suspended three long-distance routes from Chicago: the Southwest Chief, to Los Angeles; the Empire Builder, to Seattle; and the California Zephyr, to San Francisco. It also suspended Sunset Limited service from Los Angeles to San Antonio.

It will also begin suspending seven other long-distance routes on Wednesday to “avoid possible passenger disruptions while enroute.”

Freight railroad workers are on the brink of a nationwide work stoppage that could cause the country to lose billions of dollars a day and further burden the supply chain.

Negotiations between unions representing 115,000 workers and railways that include BNSF, Union Pacific, CSX, Norfolk Southern and Kansas City Southern have gone on for two years but stalled this summer. Most of the unions have already reached a tentative agreement, but those employees could refuse to cross the picket line if a deal is not made with the rest.

In July, President Joe Biden blocked a freight railroad strike for at least 60 days when he named a board of arbitrators to step in to help with contract negotiations. That special board recommended last month that workers get 24% raises and $5,000 in bonuses over a five-year contract.

If a settlement or agreement is not reached by Friday, a strike or lockout becomes legal.

A nationwide strike could cost the U.S. economy $2 billion per day, according to an industry report released last week. Those economic damages will be felt at retail stores and in lost jobs, widespread plant shutdowns, more expensive goods and the disruption of hundreds of thousands of daily trips on commuter railroads and Amtrak.

The report estimated a single container, or trailer, on a railcar can contain 2,000 UPS packages, tens of thousands of bananas or hundreds of flat-screen TVs. Any rail shutdown would significantly hinder the delivery of these items and more.

Michelle Polk, a UPS spokesperson, said it is continuing to work on a contingency plan but a strike could be severely damaging.

“Any disruptions will create uncertainty in supply chains and the U.S. economy,” Polk said. “We encourage an immediate resolution, beneficial to all parties, so that our country avoids any additional negative economic impacts and ensures business continuity.”

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