Amtrak officials and union negotiators for its employees expect to return to the bargaining table next week, but Long Island Rail Road President Helena Williams said she still has to prepare for the worst: a strike that would mean a total shutdown of Penn Station on Jan. 30 and hobble the commutes of an estimated 85,000 rush-hour riders.
Late Thursday, Joel Parker, vice president of the Transportation Communication Union and a chief negotiator for Amtrak's employees, said talks with Amtrak management are scheduled to resume Wednesday.
Amtrak, in a statement, said that "both sides are committed to resolving their issues without a strike."
"That's welcome news," Williams said. "However, the LIRR will continue to work with the MTA and NYC Transit on contingency travel plans in the event that a strike occurs."
Williams said it's too soon to announce what the railroad's contingency plan entails, but it "does take into account the potential for dangerous overcrowding at Jamaica," referring to the LIRR's main transfer station in Queens.
The LIRR will begin printing materials next week that will instruct riders on what to do if a strike occurs, she said.
When a similar Amtrak strike loomed in 1992, the LIRR urged its riders to switch to subways at certain stops, including Richmond Hill, Shea Stadium, Woodside and Long Island City in Queens and Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn, so as not to overburden the Jamaica station.
Amtrak owns the tracks at Penn Station, and a strike would effectively shut down the massive transit hub.
That won't happen before 12:01 a.m. on Jan. 30 because the two sides are in a 30-day cooling-off period mandated by federal law. Next week's negotiations would be their first since last month, Amtrak spokesman Cliff Black said. Amtrak workers have been without a contract since 2000.
If no agreement is reached in the next few weeks, Black said Congress could intervene and impose a settlement on the parties or force them into binding arbitration.
Reps. Peter King (R-Seaford) and Carolyn McCarthy (D-Mineola) and Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) agreed that a strike would be disastrous, but didn't seem intent on intervening just yet.
"It would be a mistake for Congress to involve itself in any way at this stage," King said.
Vukan Vuchic, a professor of transportation systems planning at the University of Pennsylvania who has been monitoring Amtrak workers' dispute, said no one in Congress can afford to sit back and let a strike occur.
"It would have a horrendous impact," he said. "Any politician who would not act on it would be held accountable by the public."
Both in 1992 and 1997, potential Amtrak strikes were averted at the 11th hour, but not before transit officials started making preparations and commuters got more than a little nervous.
In 1992, the city subway system was prepared to launch a specially created "P" train that was to run express between Jamaica and Penn Station. It never went into operation because Congress intervened at the last minute and brokered a deal to keep rail traffic moving.
Prior to that announcement, the LIRR had warned customers of 20-minute waits just to get onto subway platforms at Jamaica, where police had set up barricades to regulate the number of commuters moving in and out of the station.
When a strike loomed in 1997, the union and Amtrak gave the LIRR permission to keep running its trains into Penn Station even during a strike. Amtrak ultimately reached an agreement with the union before that plan took effect.