Looming Rail Worker Strike Could Stop Metra, Amtrak Trains For Chicago-Area Commuters, Disrupt Supply Chains

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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.

Thousands of Chicago commuters who ride the Metra to from the suburbs and the city may have to find an alternate route to work Friday should freight rail workers take to the picket lines later this week.

According to a report from NBC News, freight workers are threatening to strike as early as Friday for reasons including higher pay, more generous paid leave, and a renegotiation of strict attendance policies that makes it difficult to take time off.

Two of the largest unions, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, and the SMART Transportation Division, which combined represent half of railroad union workers -- approximately 60,000 people -- are still negotiating.

"Our Unions remain at the bargaining table and have given the rail carriers a proposal that we would be willing to submit to our members for ratification, but it is the rail carriers that refuse to reach an acceptable agreement," a statement from The SMART Transportation Division on Monday said. "In fact, it was abundantly clear from our negotiations over the past few days that the railroads show no intentions of reaching an agreement with our Unions."

"The railroads are using shippers, consumers, and the supply chain of our nation as pawns in an effort to get our Unions to cave into their contract demands knowing that our members would never accept them," the statement continues.

On the other side, a statement from the American Association of Railroads reads, “The railroads want, and continue to advocate for, a prompt resolution that would provide historic wage increases to rail employees – and allow the railroads to continue servicing customers and prevent further disruption to the struggling supply chain.”

Experts say a freight rail work stoppage is the largest threat to steady rail service in 31 years, and Friday marks the end of a 30-day moratorium imposed by President Biden to give both sides more time to strike a deal.

But train travelers wouldn't be the only ones impacted by a work stoppage.

Here's a breakdown of how a freight rail worker strike would affect Metra commuters, Amtrak passengers and the many consumers who don't travel by train.

How the Strike Would Affect Metra Trains

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.

"Four of our lines, the BNSF and Union Pacific North, Union Pacific Northwest and Union Pacific West, are owned by and directly operated by freight railroads. If the work stoppage occurs, we expect there will not be service on these lines."

Metra's BNSF line takes passengers from Chicago's western suburbs in DuPage County to and from the city. The train's Union Pacific North line services passengers up and down the North Shore, while the other two lines shuttle commuters from as far north as McHenry County, and as far west as Kane County.

Metra, which just extended its $100 monthly Super Saver pass, does say that two of its lines would still run as scheduled -- the Metra Electric and Rock Island lines -- since Metra owns, operates and controls those lines.

However, "on the other lines," Metra says, "we are in communication with the relevant freight railroads to understand how we may be impacted and to determine our options."

As negotiations between fright railroads and unions continue, Metra says it is "hopeful that a settlement will be reached before the strike deadline."

A Metra Board of Directors meeting is scheduled for Wednesday at 9:30 a.m. It will be live streamed, and the public can watch here.

How The Strike is Already Affecting Amtrak Trains

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.

Though Amtrak also is not part of the dispute, 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.

According to Amtrak, the affected routes are a portion of the Texas Eagle, along with three long-distance routes that originate in Chicago: California Zephyr, Empire Builder and Southwest Chief.

"These initial adjustments could be followed by impacts to all Long Distance and most State-Supported routes," Amtrak's statement continued. 

How the Strike Could Affect You -- Even if You Don't Travel by Train

Train passengers may not be the only ones impacted by a strike. Due to the volume of products carried and moved by rail, supply chains for various items could be affected.

According to a report from CNBC, about 40% of the nation's long-distance trade is moved by rail. If the unions strike, more than 7,000 trains would be idled.

And the United States Chamber of Commerce says a rail worker strike could further affect economic and supply chain issues by impacting the flow of goods and raise already inflated prices.

"A shutdown of the nation's rail service would have enormous national consequences," the Chamber said on Monday, Reuters reports.

According to Joe Schwieterman, a Transportation Professor at DePaul University, the timing of the threat is especially critical.

"This comes at a really tough time," Schwieterman said in an interview with NBC 5. "Our supply chains are stretched. We have difficult logistic problems. Our highways are really clogged up. You throw in a rail strike it makes things really unpredictable for manufacturers."

"The effects on shipping are tremendous," Schwieterman said. "A lot of stoppage will occur if there is a strike."

And while a White House official told The Associated Press that President Joe Biden and members of his Cabinet are in touch with both sides in hopes of preventing a strike, Schwieterman says he is "growing a little more pessimistic."

"I think odds are more than 50% there will be a strike. Railroad workers are battered group right now with all the changes in railroading," Schwieterman said. "There’s been lots of layoffs, trying to run longer trains on tight schedules. That adds to stress. They haven’t had a raise in a while. There’s a political and emotional aspect to this as well."

Last week, a coalition of 31 agricultural groups sent a letter to Congress, and the Fertilizer Institute trade group joined the chorus of concerned shippers Saturday because shipments of ammonia and other fertilizers will be delayed.

“Supply chains are already strained and there is currently zero elasticity in rail transportation,” FIT group President and CEO Corey Rosenbusch said. “This situation will get exponentially worse every day there is no resolution.” According to Rosenbusch, more than half of all fertilizer is hauled by railroads.

Additionally, more than 75% of all finished vehicles are taken from factories to dealerships by train, and countless other products move by rail.

The Association of American Railroads estimates shutting down the railroads would cost the economy $2 billion dollars a day.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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