With less than 72 hours to go before a possible nationwide railroad strike, Maryland officials are preparing contingency plans so that an estimated 18,000 rail commuters won't be stranded Wednesday morning.
While bargainers on both sides of the national negotiations involving Amtrak, Consolidated Rail Corp. and the other major freight carriers believe a breakthrough may still be possible, it appears unlikely that the long-standing dispute will be settled before the deadline midnight Tuesday. Negotiators reported little progress yesterday.
Once that deadline passes, under federal law the unions are free to go on strike and management can choose to lock out workers. Either way, that could mean a shutdown of passenger and freight service across the country.
"It only takes one union still holding out to make a strike," said Carol Perkins, spokeswoman for the Association of American Railroads. "There are no guarantees of anything at this point."
The negotiations involve Amtrak and six of its 14 unions, including those representing locomotive engineers, electrical workers, car men [workers who inspect, repair and clean rail cars] and dispatchers.
The International Association of Machinists is also part of the dispute with Amtrak as well as with the freight carriers, which are represented in the talks by the National Railway Labor Conference.
Conrail is negotiating with the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees, which is also one of the half-dozen unions at odds with Amtrak.
The repercussions of a strike would be substantial -- an estimated $50 million a day to the U.S. economy initially and up to $1 billion daily after four weeks, according to the rail industry. Amtrak estimates that 600,000 rail passengers would be affected, including 30,000 who ride along Amtrak's Northeast Corridor each day.
Conrail -- the dominant freight carrier in the Northeast and Midwest -- handles an average 10,000 rail cars each day. A Conrail strike would also disrupt Amtrak services on Conrail-owned lines.
In Maryland, the impact would be felt immediately by the 18,000 people who ride the Maryland Rail Commuter system every day. MARC operates three rail lines.
Two of those -- the Camden Station line from Baltimore to Washington and the Brunswick line from Washington to its northwest suburbs -- are on tracks owned by CSX Corp. The popular Penn line, which runs from Perryville through Baltimore to Union Station in Washington, is on Amtrak rails.
The Mass Transit Administration, which operates MARC, has made arrangements to charter about 50 buses to ferry commuter rail passengers from selected stations.
MTA officials say this is how a limited MARC service would work:
If the strikes involve Amtrak only, then the Penn line would be shut down, but MARC would continue to operate on the Brunswick and Camden lines. Since the Union Station terminal in Washington is operated by Amtrak, the two lines would terminate at new locations around Washington.
The Brunswick line from Western Maryland would run to the Silver Spring Metro station. The Camden line from Camden Station in Baltimore would discharge at a temporary platform set up near the Rhode Island Avenue Metro station. Buses would pick up passengers at stations at Perryville, Aberdeen, Edgewood and Martin State Airport north of Baltimore and take them to downtown Baltimore via Camden Station.
South of the city, Penn line passengers would be picked up only from the Odenton stop and taken to the Savage station on the Camden line.
In the event of a strike that shuts down all MARC lines, buses would pick up passengers from all the Penn line stops north of the city and take them to Camden Station. Oriole Park would be used as a park-and-ride lot with buses ferrying passengers from Camden Station to the Washington Metro's New Carrollton station.
Buses would still pick up customers at Odenton and Savage stations, taking them to the New Carrollton Metro, and buses would serve Brunswick and Point of Rocks on the Brunswick Line and bring them to the Shady Grove Metro stop.
The buses would charge the same fares as MARC with the same departure times, and all MARC tickets would be accepted. MARC customers who choose to avoid the system during the strike will be eligible for a refund or credit on strike days, said James F. Buckley, MTA assistant general manager.
"We think we can accommodate about half our MARC ridership by bus," Mr. Buckley said. "Obviously, some people are going to have to find an alternate means of transportation."
A strike that shuts down freight services could affect Baltimore's port operations, which rely on railroads to move about 900 containers a month. This amounts to to as much as a third of all shipments, particularly commodities such as coal, grain and chemicals.
Adrian Teel, director of the Maryland Port Administration, said a short-term strike would not have a significant economic impact here since most freight could be transferred to trucks on an interim basis.
However, "if it lasts longer than a few days, it will put a burden on the truck industry," Mr. Teel said.
Amtrak has already announced that it will cancel or shorten the routes of its long distance trains, some as early as today.
The apparent impasse between railroad management and labor comes after years of negotiations, principally over issues of wages and benefits. The two parties operate under the Railway Labor Act, a 1926 law that forces the two sides to mediate disputes.
The mediation process culminated in April when President Bush convened three presidential emergency boards to gather evidence and make recommendations.
The union rejected the results, which triggered a 30-day "cooling off" period that is scheduled to end June 24.