If a strike comes next week, the beleaguered rail service may not survive the shutdown.
Amtrak is still riding the rails - for now.
But a strike - originally scheduled for today - could shut down rail service as early as next week if the nation's long-distance passenger railroad can't reach a settlement with a key union.
Because this union maintains Amtrak tracks, bridges, and buildings, a strike could also halt the commuter lines that ride on Amtrak's rails - stranding as many as 600,000 daily riders, mostly in the Northeast.
But a strike could also deal a death blow to the concept of long-distance rail service. Amtrak critics, including prominent US lawmakers, say that the train service has not proved its worth in the marketplace - and that it could not have survived as long as it has without $19 billion in federal funds. They now demand substantial reforms in return for bailout funding.
Even so, the prospect of hundreds of thousands of commuters jamming the roads or buses already has local officials lining up alternative bus service and asking President Clinton to intervene. For the Northeast Corridor and other long-distance routes, however, there would be little relief.
"In the short term, we could see a lot of people cancel trips or overload the airlines," says Ross Capon of the National Association of Railroad Passengers in Washington.
The labor disruption comes at a critical time for the railroad. Just to meet its payroll, Amtrak is borrowing money from commercial banks. A strike, unless it is short, could force the railroad to close down permanently. "If it goes several days, we could face a liquidity crisis," says Amtrak spokesman Cliff Black.
Negotiations with the union have stretched for three years. Earlier this year, a Presidential Emergency Board recommended that Amtrak pay its unions 3.5 percent more per year, retroactive to 1995. The total wage package would cost $25 million in 1998. Next year, the railroad's other 11 craft unions will negotiate contracts. If they get the same package, Amtrak's expenses would rise by $136 million per year.
Even if it gets past the immediate problem, Amtrak faces serious funding problems. Its own financial plan estimates a $100 million loss for 1998. In February, Amtrak's management predicted the railroad would go into bankruptcy by mid-1998 if it did not get some financial relief from Congress.