Hotline #664-A

A national freight railroad strike is now more likely than ever on the morning of April 17. That is the expiration of a cooling-off period following the Presidential Emergency Board report of January, which sought to address work rule and health and welfare issues, some going back to 1984. Last week, the unions offered to allow passenger trains to continue to operate. That may not be a grand gesture on their part, but rather an attempt to keep Congress from intervening very soon. However, the railroads, who like the Presidential Emergency Board plan much more than do the unions, probably would like Congress to step in soon and impose that plan. Therefore, they are unlikely to allow movement of passenger trains despite the unions' offer. Also, it is uncertain whether Amtrak and commuter employees would be willing to cross picket lines in any event.

Meanwhile, the Transportation Communications Union and the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen may have reached a tentative agreement with railroad management. The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and the United Transportation Union are much further away from an agreement -- if they walk on April 17, which is likely, all the other unions will follow suit. Members of unions that have agreed to a contract will not cross other unions' picket lines. Congress is back in session and reluctantly preparing to intervene this week, though how fast they step in depends on how many railroads are struck.

Amtrak departments are scrambling to deal with the strike threat, but no one knows which trains will be affected. Most likely to be affected will be Amtrak trains outside the Northeast Corridor and commuter operations using freight railroad tracks, particularly Chicago. Other routes may be hit by secondary pickets. Travelers and commuters this week should follow news accounts closely and keep in touch with Amtrak.

An accident tied up the Northeast Corridor all day on April 12. At 3:09 am, a northbound deadhead move of Amtrak locomotives -- one F40 pulling three E60's -- skidded into a southbound 124-car Conrail coal train at Gunpowder interlocking near Chase, Md., just north of Baltimore. No passengers or passenger equipment were involved. The Amtrak engineer was seriously injured, the conductor less so. They had both jumped from the F40. Amtrak had one track opened by 4:00 pm; in the meantime, passengers were shuttled by bus between Baltimore and Wilmington, resulting in delays of 60-90 minutes. Gunpowder, of course, is the site of the serious wreck of 1987, but the April 12 wreck appeared to result from the brakes of the Amtrak F40 not being connected to the other three locomotives. Investigations are still taking place.