Some area commuter trains already canceling service as national rail strike looms | Chicago News

The countdown is on for the railway companies and the unions to reach an agreement. If one is not reached by late Thursday evening, the workers could go on strike.

This would have a significant impact, most immediately for commuters.

Metra cancels trains to and from Chicago after rush hour Thursday, including some overnight trains on major lines, BNSF to and from Aurora, Union Pacific North to and from Waukegan, Union Pacific Northwest , which goes to and from Harvard, and the Union Pacific West, which goes in and out of Elburn.

Amtrak has canceled all long-distance travel for Thursday.

The Illinois service, which connects Chicago to Carbondale, is among the state-backed routes that will not operate Thursday evening.

In a statement late Wednesday, Amtrak said it was beginning “gradual adjustments to our service in preparation” for a potential rail strike that “could significantly impact intercity passenger rail service.”

Cancellations occur even though Metra and Amtrak are not part of the negotiations and their workers are not threatening a work stoppage. Rather, it is because their trains run on rail infrastructure owned by big companies that are at an impasse with engineers and conductors.

“So we depend on them to run the railroads, and if their people aren’t there, Amtrak can’t run efficiently, Metra can’t run efficiently,” civil engineer Joe Schofer, a Northwestern University transportation expert, said.

While people are more familiar with the Metra and Amtrak trains they ride on, Schofer said freight railroads can seem invisible.

“So we don’t pay a lot of attention to railways, but they’re really important to the things we buy, the things we make, and the things we grow and ship overseas,” he said. he declares. “A large part of bulk agricultural products – so not tomatoes, but cereals, soybeans and corn – are transported by rail. A lot of that is export freight, which is very important because it brings in revenue to the United States and to farmers.

And a warning to internet shoppers: rail plays an important role in intermodal freight. Many e-commerce packages purchased over the Internet are shipped by truck and rail.

The trucking industry suffers from its own shortages.

“If the rail network goes on strike, there really isn’t any surge capacity within the trucking industry to handle that extra freight. So it’s not like we can just shut down the rail and all of a sudden the truckers will magically appear and take over,” said Jeffrey Haushalter, partner at the logistics and chain management firm of supply. Chicago Consulting. “Rail is extremely important to the economy, to moving goods and materials across the United States.”

About 40% of goods are shipped long distances by rail.

In anticipation of a strike, he said carriers are protecting their assets by suspending the transportation of hazardous materials and goods that could spoil if they get stuck on a rail line.

Haushalter said it could take weeks or more for the impact to actually trickle down to most consumers, but the supply chain would see the effects immediately.

If (a manufacturer) makes something from ten different ingredients, not having one stops us from making the product,” Haushalter said. “Most companies have what we call safety stock, which is stock that they set aside exactly for these types of disruptions. So a short-term disruption most businesses can handle. But a longer-term interruption would be very costly.

This type of disruption could raise the price of food and retail goods when inflation is already high.

This could be politically costly in the run-up to the November 8 election.

President Joe Biden reportedly pushed for a deal and negotiations continued through Wednesday.

This might not lead to a strike.

Haushalter said it was possible both sides would continue under the current “chill” period, or that Congress could get involved and force the tracks to keep running.

Republicans have introduced legislation to do so, but union-allied Democrats are likely to be reluctant.

“Congress has the ability, unlike other strikes, to end it. Whether or not they choose to do so, you must first agree. But then you must also have the will to wanting to intervene in something that people might want to avoid in an election year,” Haushalter said.

The fight between the railways and the unions is not about pay.

The terms call for workers to get double-digit raises, but the union is fighting for schedule certainty and to allow workers not to be constantly on call due to staff shortages.

Schofer said the railroads may have been “too quick” to lay off employees and are struggling to bounce back.

Despite the high pay, he heard railroad industry insiders say they were struggling to hire more engineers and conductors because of the demands of those jobs.

“Transport in general, but the railways in particular, are struggling because they need people at work. They need it there. They need it in the cold and snow to do these jobs. And how to organize this work assignment in such a way that people can be happy with it and have some confidence that they have control over their time to a reasonable extent, that they can sleep in their own bed at least in time and that they get paid well? Schofer said. “Everyone in the transport business is very dependent on people, and so in a sense the labor side of the market has a bit of an upper hand. You need us and you have to give us what will make us happy to come back.

All seven major “Class 1” railroads enter the Chicago metro area for trade or distribution.

“So we are the link. We are in the middle of that,” he said.

Follow Amanda Vinicky on Twitter: @amandavinicky

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