Amtrak, union extend talks Deadline to avert railroad strike is pushed back 8 days

'Significant progress' in round-the-clock talks

October 28, 1997|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN NATIONAL STAFF Sun staff writer Thomas W. Waldron contributed to this article.

WASHINGTON -- Amtrak and its track workers agreed late last night to prolong negotiations on a new contract, staving off for eight days a strike deadline that would have expired at midnight tonight, according to the Transportation Department.

Transportation spokesman Bill Schulz said the agreement -- which delays any strike action until 12: 01 a.m. Nov. 6 -- came after "significant progress" in round-the-clock talks between the two sides since Sunday.

The decision to continue negotiations averts, at least temporarily, a shutdown that could have idled Amtrak's trains in the Northeast and tied up travel throughout the region.

Earlier in the day, congressional leaders said they intended to take up legislation to delay a strike and combine it with controversial measures giving Amtrak a freer hand in dealing with labor issues. Those concerns are likely to remain regardless of how the dispute between Amtrak and 2,300-member Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees is resolved.

Amtrak and the union representing workers who clear and maintain the railway's tracks have been bargaining under the auspices of the National Mediation Board. Track workers are seeking a raise that works out to about 3.1 percent in- creases annually over five years, but Amtrak officials say the company cannot afford that.

Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater, who convened separate informal talks with both sides, sought and won agreement to delay any strike action after "significant progress that has been made over the last 48 hours," Schulz said.

He said the sides were making progress on all issues, including wages and productivity, against the backdrop of Amtrak's bleak financial picture.

A strike by the union would affect routes from Boston to Washington. Service probably would stop quickly because the union's members are intricately involved in safety precautions for rail travel and because unions for most of the 20,000 other Amtrak employees have pledged to observe a strike.

Marylanders who would be most affected are the thousands who ride Amtrak or MARC, the state's commuter rail service, especially those traveling to or from Washington. Most MARC trains are operated by Amtrak.

Representatives of the union are seeking pay increases that would enable its members to reach parity with freight rail workers. But the financially ailing company says it cannot afford such pay increases -- or the cost of giving similar raises to Amtrak employees represented by other unions.

Union officials say that people performing jobs for freight railways similar to those of their employees earn several dollars an hour more than the average $15.50 hourly pay at Amtrak.

The officials also argue that the workers they represent should not have to bear the brunt of Congress' reluctance to subsidize public transportation.

Last night's reports of progress came after several months of intransigence by both sides, and after more than one strike deadline already had been postponed.

In the meantime, travelers have begun to speak anxiously about the effects of a disruption of Amtrak's routes, which serve 60,000 passengers daily, including 35,000 passengers in the Northeast.

"It would be a big problem for me," said Al Rabasca, a 44-year-old insurance official from Montclair, N.J., moments after disembarking from a Metroliner from New York City. "I go to Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington by train."

Throughout yesterday, officials in Maryland and the Northeast were gearing up for what appeared to be a likely strike. Despite pledges from Amtrak and the union not to disturb commuter rail lines, Maryland officials warned commuters to prepare for a major disruption in the state's mass transit system.

Most of the trains operated by MARC run on Amtrak's Penn line and would not operate during a strike, officials said.

In particular, there would be no MARC service between Perryville in Cecil County, Penn Station in Baltimore and Union Station in Washington. That line normally carries about 5,400 commuters a day.

If the union were to call a strike, state officials also expect major roadways to be choked with traffic. Commuters who drive between Baltimore and Washington might need to add 30 minutes to their travel time, state officials said.

"An Amtrak shutdown would make it difficult for highway commuters, since thousands of MARC rail commuters would have to drive to work," said Gov. Parris N. Glendening. "Our goal is to minimize the impact this disruption in service would have on commuters."

In the event of a strike, MARC would run trains between Baltimore's Camden Station and the Washington suburbs, where commuters can connect with Washington's Metro service. There would also be service on the Brunswick line, with trains stopping at the Silver Spring Metro station, rather than in Washington.

MARC users with commuter passes would be able to ride free on Metro trains in Washington, officials said.

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