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Rail strike could stop passenger service here

A labor dispute between the nation’s rail freight carriers and their labor unions could lead to a coast-to-coast railroad shutdown on Dec. 9.

If that happens, the Metra UP North line through Evanston would likely come to a halt, along with several other Chicagoland Metra commuter routes.

Metra, the commuter rail funding agency, does not carry freight, and is not a party to the contract issue.

However, the tracks on several Metra routes are owned by freight carriers, which also employ the train crews.

That’s the case with the run through Evanston, which stops at Main Street, Davis Street, and Central Street on the run between Downtown Chicago and Kenosha, Wisconsin.

The UP-N line is owned and staffed by mega-freight railroad Union Pacific. So a strike against UP would shut down everything it runs, freight and commuter.

“We are potentially impacted on the three UP lines and the BNSF [Burlington Northern Santa Fe] line for sure,” Metra spokesperson Mike Gillis tells Evanston Now, “as they are operated by freight employees. We are closely monitoring the situation,” he says.

Routes where Metra both owns the tracks and hires the crews, such as Metra Electric, would apparently not be impacted.

Eight of the twelve nationwide rail labor organizations have approved a tentative contract agreement with the industry.

But the four other unions, including the one representing conductors and trainmen, saw the rank and file vote “no.”

If those four unions walk out, the other eight, even though they approved the new contract, would honor the picket line.

Union Pacific freight train on UP-N line at Highland Park.

Labor and management are going back to the negotiating table to see if a deal can be reached before the 12:01 am Dec. 9 strike deadline.

Money is not the major stumbling block.

The tentative agreement OK’d by some unions but rejected by others includes a 14% raise retroactive to 2020, and a total 24% pay hike over the four years of the contract.

Railroading is a good paying job. But the sticking point in these negotiations is work rules and the employee life that comes with them — constantly being away from home, working outdoors in potentially dangerous weather, getting scheduled with minimal notice, limited sick time and staffing shortages.

Jeremy Ferguson, president of the conductors union (Sheet Metal, Air, Rail Transportation) told CNN that “It’s quality of life,” and how the employees are treated that led to the rejection.

“When big corporations cut too deep,” Ferguson said, “and they expect everybody else to pick up the pace, it becomes intolerable. You don’t have family time, you don’t have time to get adequate rest.”

Industry spokesperson Ian Jefferies, of the Association of American Railroads, told the cable network, “There’s absolutely opportunities if a ratification fails the first time to sit down and come to additional agreements …. ”

Because of the potentially devastating effect a railroad strike would have on the nation’s economy, with so much freight grinding to a halt, there is a good chance that if no agreement is reached, Congress would intervene and impose a settlement, either before the deadline, or shortly thereafter once any walkout begins.

If there is a strike, however, Metra commuters in Evanston do have an alternative. The CTA Purple line parallels the UP-N tracks for a while, and also has stations at Main, Central, and Davis.

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