During yesterday’s Railroad Day on Capitol Hill, meetings between the freight industry and New Jersey’s congressional representatives tensely broached the subject of how a potential New Jersey Transit rail strike would impact more than just daily commutes.
Freight companies use many of the same tracks as NJ Transit, and without the folks that work the signals and keep the tracks in good order, the network of trains that carry freight throughout the state—15 short lines and Class 1 railroads such as Conrail and CSX— would be stopped in their tracks. Industry representatives ominously outlined the potential domino effects:
- Bayway Refinery would shut down. This refinery, the second largest on the east coast, converts crude oil that comes through the port into gasoline, jet fuel and heating oil that is then transported to customers up and down the east coast. Bayway is also a major producer of plastics, but without the ability to move goods, workers will be left with nothing to do.
- Hazardous materials would be sitting — illegally — in rail cars. As industry insiders said, there are plenty of good reasons why safety regulations don’t allow hazardous materials to sit in rail cars.
- Restarting freight movement will take two to three times longer than the strike itself. “Paralyzing is probably a mild term,” said Steven Friedland, President of Short Line Data Systems Inc. “It takes time to untie that knot, and every major industry in New Jersey south of Philadelphia will be affected.”
While Congress has the ability to override a strike, as Congressman Leonard Lance noted, they are reticent to do so. The last override was in 1987 when Congress ordered Long Island Rail Road workers to go back to work. And although Congress did not step in after LIRR workers went on strike in 1994, given the more wide-reaching impacts of New Jersey’s potential strike there’s speculation that this time may be different.
Roughly 105,000 New Jersey commuters who use NJ Transit rail each day may wonder exactly how they’ll get to work next week given the inadequate contingency plan that was released yesterday. But if a strike does happen, many more Garden State residents could soon find themselves wondering why their supermarket shelves are empty, why they can’t fill up their gas tanks, and why the doors to their jobs have been shuttered.