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Strike may hit MARC commuters

August 08, 1997

By DON AINES

Staff Writer, Martinsburg

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - A threatened strike within 30 days by the union representing Amtrak's track maintenance workers could complicate the commute of both Amtrak and MARC riders in Martinsburg and Harpers Ferry, W.Va., according to Amtrak officials.

This week the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees notified the National Mediation Board that it had rejected the board's offer to arbitrate a new contract with Amtrak. The board mediates labor disputes involving the railroad and airline industries.

While a strike could seriously disrupt service for many of the 800,000 people who ride commuter lines each day between Virginia and Massachusetts on tracks owned or maintained by Amtrak, riders of MARC's Brunswick Line would not feel the impact until they neared the nation's capital, according to Amtrak and MARC officials.

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"It would affect some MARC service if it happened, but that would be in the Baltimore-Washington area," according to Anthony Brown, a spokesman for the Maryland Mass Transit Administration, which runs the Maryland Rail Commuter, or MARC, system.

Brown said the line serving Martinsburg and Harpers Ferry is owned and maintained by CSX. The Brunswick Line runs from Martinsburg to Union Station in Washington, D.C., carrying 6,000 riders a day. That includes 150 daily boardings in Martinsburg and 110 in Harpers Ferry.

MARC operates over CSX tracks until it hits the Northeast Corridor line near Washington, which is owned and maintained by Amtrak, said Rick Remington, an Amtrak spokesman in Philadelphia.

So riders whose ultimate destination is Washington might have to get off before the end of the line if there is a strike.

Remington said CSX and other freight lines reached an agreement with the union last fall. Two of MARC's three lines are under contract with CSX. A third serving the Baltimore area is under contract with Amtrak.

Amtrak uses the Brunswick Line, according to Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari in Chicago. The federally subsidized passenger rail service had 3,599 arrivals and departures in Martinsburg for all of 1996 and 2,801 in Harpers Ferry. He said a strike could affect their service.

"If that union put up picket lines, it is possible that other unions could honor it," Magliari said.

Although a strike is threatened, Magliari said the president could step in the way he did to end the American Airlines pilots' strike.

That strike lasted only a few minutes before President Clinton intervened under the National Railway Labor Act. The president could again step in if he determines a strike would cause severe economic disruptions.

The BMWE and Amtrak are in a 30-day cooling-off period, after which the union could strike and Amtrak could impose a new contract, according to Amtrak.

"As soon as an action is taken, the president tends to take action to stop it," Magliari said.

That could delay a strike another 60 days while the president appointed a presidential emergency board to issue a report and recommendations.

The BMWE is seeking 21/2 percent annual wage increases through 2000, the same deal workers got with the freight lines, according to Jed Dodd, chairman of the union's Pennsylvania Federation.

Amtrak said in a news release Thursday that its "precarious financial condition" prevents it from matching the wages at the more profitable freight lines.

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