WASHINGTON — With the nation's freight railroad system paralyzed and Amtrak's long distance passenger service crippled, Congress moved cautiously Wednesday to deal with the shutdown, despite a demand from President Bush for immediate action to restore train service.
The Bush Administration warned that economic losses from the freight line strike and lockout would amount to $1 billion a day, while the Assn. of American Railroads estimated them at $50 million a day at the outset, potentially rising to $637 million a day if it lasted two weeks.
Under the Railway Labor Act, Congress can end a railroad strike if it is hurting U.S. commerce. But despite the potentially staggering costs, the House and Senate seemed in no hurry to act, delaying any legislation to resolve the crisis for another 24 to 48 hours.
Most businesses seemed largely unaffected on the first day of the shutdown but auto manufacturers, farmers, steelmakers and other industries pleaded for a quick solution, saying that continued interruption of rail service would force them to close plants and lay off thousands of workers within days.
Rail commuters were largely spared, except those in the San Diego-Los Angeles corridor, and were able to get to their jobs--at least for now--because three unions delayed their threatened strike against Amtrak until 12:01 a.m. Friday at the earliest.
The greatest single strike impact on passenger service was in Southern California, where eight daily round-trip San Diegan trains were sidetracked. More than 5,500 people--most of them commuters from San Diego and Orange counties to Los Angeles--were forced to find other ways to work.
In addition, about 3,000 commuters who use the Norfolk Southern line in Chicago will not be able to take the train to work from southwestern suburbs because they cross tracks operated by CSX, the only struck carrier. No other commuter lines in the Chicago area will be affected by the shutdown, however.
Commuter trains in New York and Philadelphia largely remained in operation. Amtrak was able to keep trains running in the Northeast corridor between Washington and Boston, where it owns its own lines. Amtrak's service outside the Northeast corridor was crippled because those trains use some of the same tracks as the freight lines being struck.
The shutdown began at 12:01 a.m. EDT Wednesday when about 1,500 members of the International Assn. of Machinists struck CSX Corp.--one of the largest freight carriers operating east of the Mississippi River--to enforce demands for higher wages and restrictions on the railroad's use of outside contractors.
The union set up picket lines at several East Coast locations. In retaliation, major freight lines began shutting down all their operations at 2 a.m. EDT in what trade unions called a management-imposed lockout.
Edwin Harper, president of the Assn. of American Railroads, said that railroad officials had no choice because of the "seamless nature of the nation's freight rail system."
"A strike that begins in one region of the country affects service in the entire nation," he said.
That move--involving as many as 40 freight railroads including Conrail--in turn caused Amtrak's problems.
The machinists union said that it decided to strike CSX after 4 1/2 "frustrating and fruitless" years of talks because it thought it would have minimal impact on passengers and shippers.
The union said that its disputes with the railroads are over subcontracting, health care and its request for a 10% "skill differential," in additional to a general wage hike that it says would correct inequities in its members' pay.
They expressed anger at the move by the railroads.
"This is an outrageous action by the railroads in their attempt to stampede Congress into imposing a management-biased contract on their workers," Mac Fleming, president of the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees, said in a statement early Wednesday.
On Tuesday, Amtrak reached tentative accord with three unions. But there were no settlements with the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, the maintenance workers and the machinists.
Leaders of the three unions that are still bargaining with Amtrak said they decided to postpone a work stoppage because they detected signs of progress in the negotiations, which have been going on since 1988.
Key Democrats in Congress said that a renewed cooling-off period to allow bargaining to continue was one option being considered, in addition to the Administration's proposal to impose settlement terms that the railroads have accepted but the unions have spurned as inadequate.
But the Administration continued Wednesday to press throughout the day for congressional action.
Transportation Secretary Andrew H. Card Jr. testified before a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee that the shutdown should be halted immediately before it inflicts any more damage on a faltering economy.