How a Potential Rail Strike Will Affect You Even if You Don't Take the Train

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UPDATE: Thursday morning, following a tentative agreement reached by union workers and railroad companies, both Metra and Amtrak said all lines will run as scheduled, and that they were working to restore service to any previous pre-emptive cancelations. Our original story continues below.

As a potential freight rail worker strike looms this week, Metra and Amtrak are preparing for service shutdowns as passenger rail service across the country is affected.

Even for those who do not commute via Metra, the shutdowns are expected to significantly increase traffic on area expressways, with many suburban residents using the commuter rail service on a daily basis for work.

The shutdowns are also expected to further exacerbate existing supply chain issues, as many crucial goods travel via freight rail in the U.S.

Metra's BNSF, Union Pacific North, Union Pacific West and Union Pacific Northwest lines would be affected by the service disruptions, changing the travel plan for commuters from the North Shore to Naperville and presenting the biggest threat to steady rail operations in over 30 years.

Here's what you need to know about what could happen this week:

What Is the Strike About and Where Do Things Stand?

The railroads have reached tentative agreements with most of their unions, including a ninth deal announced Tuesday, based on the recommendations of a Presidential Emergency Board Joe Biden appointed this summer that called for 24% raises and $5,000 in bonuses in a five-year deal that’s retroactive to 2020. The deal also includes one additional paid leave day a year and higher health insurance costs.

But all 12 railroad unions must agree to prevent a strike. The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen union that represents engineers, and the Transportation Division of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers union that represents conductors want the railroads to address some of their concerns about unpredictable work schedules and strict attendance rules in addition to agreeing to the recommended wage increases.

Ron Kaminkow, general secretary of the Railroad Workers United labor coalition that includes workers from a variety of railroad unions, said he doesn't think the unions are demanding much at this point — just the kind of things most U.S. workers already enjoy like the ability to take time off without being penalized.

“We have attendance policies that have gotten more and more and more draconian. That offer very, very little leeway for workers who need to take time off for doctor’s appointments, for time with family, to be rested,” Kaminkow said.

What Else Could Be Impacted by the Strike?

The railroads have already started to curtail shipments of hazardous materials and have announced plans to stop hauling refrigerated products ahead of Friday's strike deadline. Now businesses that rely on Norfolk Southern, Union Pacific, BNSF, CSX, Kansas City Southern and other railroads to deliver their raw materials and finished products have started planning for the worst.

Meanwhile, Biden administration officials are scrambling to develop a plan to use trucks, ships and planes to try to keep the most crucial chemicals and other goods moving if the railroads stop rolling. But the White House is also keeping the pressure on the two sides to settle their differences, and a growing number of business groups are lobbying Congress to be prepared to intervene and block a strike if they can't reach an agreement.

“We have made crystal clear to the interested parties the harm that American families, business and farmers and communities would experience if they were not to reach a resolution,” White House press secretary Jean-Pierre said Tuesday. She said a shutdown is “not acceptable.”

Starting Monday, all the major railroads put a hold on shipments of hazardous materials to ensure those dangerous chemicals wouldn't be stranded along the tracks if there is a strike. Norfolk Southern told its customers that it will also stop accepting shipments of intermodal containers full of goods starting Wednesday evening as it prepares “for a controlled shutdown of the network.”

In addition to businesses, traffic on roadways will likely also see backups as riders begin to find other modes of transportation.

"In Chicago we’re uniquely vulnerable to this kind of things," DePaul University transportation professor Joe Schwieterman told NBC 5.

Schwieterman adds the strike comes at a very bad time.

"Our supply chains are stretched, we have difficult logistic problems, our highways are really clogged up," he said.

Which Metra Train Lines Will Be Affected?

Metra on Wednesday announced trains on at least four of its major train lines would be canceled beginning Thursday evening. On top of that, the company noted that if a strike occurs, there will be no service Friday on the same lines, which are owned and operated by the BNSF Railway and Union Pacific Railroad.

The affected lines are Metra's BNSF, Union Pacific North, Union Pacific West and Union Pacific Northwest.

"Both BNSF Railway and Union Pacific Railroad, which own and operate the lines, have communicated that they will begin curtailing service after the evening rush hour on Thursday, Sept. 15 in preparation for the potential work stoppage," Metra said in a statement to riders.

As of Wednesday, the rail agency said it expects to operate trains on the Metra Electric, Rock Island, SouthWest Service, Milwaukee District North, and Milwaukee District West lines. It remains unclear if trains will run on the Heritage Corridor or North Central Service lines, however.

According to a statement from Metra, the following BNSF trains will not operate Thursday night, Sept. 15:

Inbound trains 1296, 1298, 1300 and 1302 are canceled (all depart Aurora after 8 p.m.)
Outbound trains 1289, 1291 1293 and 1295 are canceled (all depart Chicago after 9:30 p.m.)

The following Union Pacific trains will not operate Thursday night, Sept 15:

Inbound trains 372 and 374 are canceled (all depart Waukegan after 10 p.m.)
Outbound trains 371, 373, 375 and 377 are canceled (all depart Chicago after 9:30 p.m.)

The following Union Pacific Northwest trains will not operate Thursday night, Sept 15:

Inbound trains 666 and 668 are canceled (all depart after 9:30 p.m.)
Outbound trains 661,663,665 and 601 are canceled (all depart Chicago after 9:30 p.m.)

The following Union Pacific West trains will not operate Thursday night, Sept 15:

Some businesses would likely be affected more than others by a rail shutdown. For instance, nearly all ethanol and coal and most grain moves by rail.

Inbound train 68 is canceled (departs Elburn after 9:15 p.m.)
Outbound trains 69 and 71 are canceled (all depart Chicago after 9:30 p.m.)

What About Amtrak?

Amtrak on Monday already moved to pre-emptively cancel three long-distance train routes that originate in Chicago, a move that the train operator says would "avoid possible passenger disruptions" due to the impending strike.

According to Amtrak, the affected routes are the California Zephyr, Empire Builder and Southwest Chief.

Are Metra and Amtrak Workers Part of the Strike?

While Metra is not part of the labor dispute, the train operator said in a statement to NBC 5 Tuesday that a rail worker strike "may directly impact Metra's ability to operate on some lines," since the majority of Metra's lines travel on tracks that are either owned, maintained or dispatched by, or intersect with freight railroads.

Amtrak also is not part of the dispute, but the train operator said in a statement that a rail worker strike "could significantly impact" its passenger service since it operates nearly all of its 21,000 route miles on tracks that are owned, maintained and dispatched by freight railroads.

NBC Chicago/Associated Press
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