Commuters, businesses try to find ways to cope

June 26, 1992|By Kim Clark and Peter Jensen | Kim Clark and Peter Jensen,Staff Writers Staff writer Liz Atwood contributed to this article.

Fretting over uncertainties caused by the 2-day-old rail shutdown, Maryland commuters and business officials found ways to cope yesterday as the federal government moved to get the trains rolling again.

The machinists' strike against CSX Transportation Corp. -- brought to at least a temporary halt when President Bush signed an arbitration bill early today -- shut down two of the three lines on the Maryland Rail Commuter (MARC) system Wednesday.

Trains continued to run on the Penn line, which links Perryville to Baltimore's Pennsylvania Station and points south ending at Washington.

Following a 50 percent drop in ridership Wednesday, the Penn line attracted an "average" number of customers yesterday, according to the Mass Transit Administration.

Despite the government's imposition of a back-to-work order, the Camden and Brunswick lines that operate on CSX tracks will not be in service today. Federal law requires that workers first inspect the tracks to make sure there are no obstructions before trains can run.

"I understand that's about an eight-hour process," said Ronald J. Hartman, Maryland's Mass Transit Administration chief, who expressed hope that the idled MARC lines would be operating by tomorrow for weekend baseball business at Camden Station adjacent to the new Camden Yards ballpark.

State officials spent much of yesterday planning for a threat that seemed increasingly unlikely as the day wore on: the prospect of strike against Amtrak. That would have shut down MARC entirely, and MTA officials had prepared to call out a fleet of 100 buses to ferry rail commuters who might be stranded.

At the General Motors Corp. plant on Broening Highway, company officials also contemplated a worst-case scenario. If the freight lines remain closed, the minivan plant would be unable to replenish supplies, and approximately 3,300 workers could face layoffs as early as Monday.

The plant, which normally gets 1 million pounds of parts delivered by rail daily, didn't stock up much be

fore the rail stoppage, said GM spokesman Terry Youngerman.

The plant has been operating for several years on "just-in-time" deliveries to keep inventories low. If freight doesn't start moving soon, Mr. Youngerman said, "by Monday it will be touch-and-go."

Meanwhile, state economic officials had set up a hot line to gather information from businesses about the impact of the stoppage. Those affected can call the Department of Economic and Employment Development at (800) 873-7232.

Rail passengers worried, too. Amtrak reported a decline yesterday in ridership along its northeast corridor, including the Baltimore area, even though regular service was available.

Airlines and bus companies apparently benefited from Amtrak's loss. A spokesman for USAir, based in Arlington, Va., one of two airlines (along with TWA) that exchanges plane tickets for Amtrak tickets, said it is attracting an average of 1,200 to 1,400 Amtrak ticket-holders a day.

Dallas-based Greyhound Lines, which also swaps train tickets for bus passage, has experienced a 10 percent increase in ridership, a company official said.

At the Port of Baltimore, cargo was continuing to move. But Sarah Moriarty, spokeswoman for the Maryland Port Administration, said the impact of a continued stoppage "could be devastating" if it constricted the flow of cargo.

Some affected ship lines were simply parking cargo containers at the Seagirt Marine Terminal, said port director Adrian Teel, but others had boxes loaded onto rail cars.

Mr. Teel said Baltimore was less vulnerable than some places to the rail shutdown because about 70 percent of its cargo moves in trucks.

Meanwhile, trucking firms gained shipments that would have moved by rail.

Overnite Transportation Co. was so busy that it had to turn down requests. "We are saving what capacity we have for our regular )) customers," said John Fain, manager of the company's Southeast region. The customers have pushed "our tonnage up pretty significantly" since the stoppage began, he said.

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