What Riders Should Know as Metra, Amtrak Cancel Trains Ahead of Possible Rail Strike

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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 Metra and Amtrak brace for a potential freight rail worker strike this week, both railway companies have announced cancellations on several popular Chicago-area routes as they navigate closures that could impact thousands of area commuters on railroads and elsewhere.

The potential disruptions mark the biggest threat to steady rail service in more than three decades.

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

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:

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.

What Is the Strike About and Where Do Things Stand?

Members of one union rejected a tentative deal with the largest U.S. freight railroads Wednesday, while two ratified agreements and three others remained at the bargaining table just days ahead of a strike deadline, threatening to intensify snarls in the nation's supply chain that have contributed to rising prices.

About 4,900 members of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers District 19 voted to reject the tentative agreement negotiated by IAM leadership with the railroads, the union said Wednesday. But the IAM agreed to delay any strike by its members until Sept. 29 to allow more time for negotiations and to allow other unions to vote.

Railroads are trying to reach an agreement with all their other unions to avert a strike before Friday’s deadline. The unions aren't allowed to strike before Friday under the federal law that governs railroad contract talks.

There are 12 unions — one with two separate divisions — representing 115,000 workers that must agree to the tentative deals and then have members vote on whether to approve them. So far, nine had agreed to tentative deals and three others are still at the bargaining table.

Of the nine that agreed to the deals, two — the Transportation Communications Union and the Brotherhood of Railway Carmen unions — voted to ratify their contracts Wednesday. But IAM members voted to reject their deal. Votes by the other six unions that approved tentative deals are pending.

All the tentative deals are based closely 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. Those recommendations also includes one additional paid leave day a year and higher health insurance costs.

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.”

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.

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.

NBC Chicago/Associated Press
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