An Amtrak passenger train departs Chicago on Wednesday.

An Amtrak passenger train departs Chicago on Wednesday. Credit: AP/Charles Rex Arbogast

Freight railroad operators and union workers Thursday reached a tentative deal, officials said, averting a potential nationwide work stoppage that threatened to significantly disrupt commerce, travel and Long Island Rail Road service, officials said. 

In a statement early Thursday, President Joe Biden announced the agreement, which he called “an important win for our economy and the American people.” 

“These rail workers will get better pay, improved working conditions, and peace of mind around their health care costs: all hard-earned,” Biden said. “The agreement is also a victory for railway companies who will be able to retain and recruit more workers for an industry that will continue to be part of the backbone of the American economy for decades to come.” 

In a joint statement, the two unions involved in the negotiations — the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen and the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, and Transportation Workers — said the deal with the nation’s largest freight carriers “includes wage increases, bonuses, and no increases to insurance copays and deductibles.” 

The deal calls for a compounded wage increase totaling 24% over the five-year term of the contract, $5,000 lump sum bonuses, and changes sought by unions involving attendance policies. The two unions’ members must vote to ratify the agreement. 

“We listened when our members told us that a final agreement would require improvements to their quality of life as well as economic gains,” the unions said. 

With a strike deadline looming at 12:01 a.m. Friday, both sides negotiated into the night, with intervention from lawmakers, Labor Secretary Martin Walsh, and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg.

A strike, or lockout, was expected to deal a devastating blow to the nation — halting the transport of critically needed goods and chemicals across the nation and disrupting passenger travel wherever tracks are owned and maintained by freight companies. 

Although the Metropolitan Transportation Authority assured the public that it did not anticipate any impact on the Long Island Rail Road — whose employees were not directly affected by the contract dispute — there was concern that some LIRR workers, in support of fellow union railroaders, would refuse to cross picket lines. 

Amtrak, which canceled several long-distance, intercity trips in anticipation of the work stoppage, said Thursday it was “working to quickly restore canceled trains and reaching out to impacted customers to accommodate on first available departures.” 

With the potential impact from a strike averted, MTA officials on Thursday celebrated another sign of a return to pre-pandemic normalcy. The agency, which includes the LIRR, Metro-North, and New York City subways and buses, on Wednesday moved a total of 5.6 million riders — the most since the COVID-19 pandemic began in March 2020.

The LIRR set its own pandemic ridership record on Wednesday, when it carried 204,000 passengers, or about 71% of 2019 weekday levels.

"Ridership is surging, and that's an indication that New York is coming back strong," MTA chairman Janno Lieber said at a Grand Central Terminal news conference.

With AP

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