- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 2, 2003

Amtrak has averted a one-day, nationwide strike by its unionized workers planned for today with some last-minute negotiation and threats of court action.

The unions planned the strike to protest what they believe to be chronic underfunding of Amtrak by Congress.

“The trains are going to run on Friday, as they do every day at Amtrak,” Amtrak President David L. Gunn said in a statement.

The national passenger railroad filed a motion Monday for an injunction against the union’s plans for a strike. A hearing on the injunction is scheduled for Oct. 20 in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. Union leaders have agreed to take no job action until the court has ruled.

“As I have said before, the best way to gain support for our service is to continue to provide it, not withhold it,” Mr. Gunn said. “A shutdown, even for just 24 hours, is ill-advised and counterproductive as it undercuts the public’s faith in the reliability of our service and threatens our future.”

About 8,000 union members among Amtrak’s 21,000 employees had threatened to walk off the job today.

They said they were not trying to hurt the railroad or its customers but rather trying to prevent it from being shut down by underfunding that makes it nearly impossible to continue operating. They also warned that a devastating accident is inevitable because the infrastructure is decaying and Amtrak lacks money to repair it.

“I think we tried to prove a point regarding how important Amtrak is to the country,” said John Bentley, spokesman for the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, which represents about 2,000 Amtrak engineers.

Interruption of the strike is not necessarily a setback for the six unions that planned to participate, he said.

“I think the main reason for the strike was to call attention to the need for appropriate funding for Amtrak,” Mr. Bentley said. “If we’ve done that even though the strike never got off the ground, then we’ve been successful in part.”

Amtrak officials said they need at least $1.8 billion to operate the nationwide railroad system through fiscal 2004, which started Wednesday. Mr. Gunn said infrastructure repair was urgently needed, particularly in the Northeast Corridor between Washington, New York and Boston.

Congress approved a resolution last week to continue funding at fiscal 2003 levels until lawmakers resolve their own dispute about how much to give Amtrak.

A Senate proposal is offering $1.34 billion. The House is offering a $900 million package that Amtrak warns would force a shutdown.

The railroad received just over $1 billion in subsidies for fiscal 2003. It never has made a profit in its 32-year history.

Amtrak said a strike would have disrupted travel for about 60,000 of its passengers and another 700,000 people who ride commuter rail systems that operate with shared track or personnel, including Maryland Rail Commuter and Virginia Railway Express trains.

Freight trains on several lines shared with Amtrak also would have been delayed. Amtrak said a one-day strike would have cost it at least $4.5 million in revenue.

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