Eastbound LIRR train enters Jamaica station with storm clouds over...

Eastbound LIRR train enters Jamaica station with storm clouds over Manhattan. A lightning strike disrupted westbound service from Jamaica to Penn Station on the LIRR (Sept. 29, 2011) Credit: Patrick E. McCarthy

A disruptive LIRR strike that once seemed a distant apparition has become a clear and present danger.

One week from today 5,400 of the railroad's workers can legally walk off the job. Contract negotiations have progressed in fits and starts, so there's a real possibility Long Islanders will wake up on July 20 to no train service. Riders would begin to feel the squeeze by Friday, as the railroad stores and secures trains in anticipation of a shut down.

Planning to take the train into Manhattan Saturday for dinner or a show? Or a concert in Brooklyn? Better think now about how you'll get home. Need the train to get to work Monday? The MTA rolled out contingency plans Friday, but they're likely to provide an inconvenient, exasperating alternative to train service. Freight ordinarily delivered by rail won't get to stores here. It's a miserable prospect that should be avoided.

And even if a strike is averted at the last minute, the angst of this coming week should make us determined not to have Long Island held hostage again. It is not too soon to start thinking long term about privatizing railroad operations to get our commuter line out of federal jurisdiction. But right now the MTA and unions aren't that far apart on a deal for LIRR workers who are already handsomely compensated. Settle it.

Workers earn $87,182 a year, on average, when overtime is included, according to the MTA. That spikes to $124,828 in total compensation with benefits such as health coverage they don't contribute to and two generous defined benefit pensions, one from the LIRR and another from the federal government that's in lieu of Social Security. (You may have heard about those scammed disability pensions.)

LIRR conductors make $36.25 an hour, compared to a median of $28.46 for conductors on other commuter railroads such as Metro-North, New Jersey Transit, the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority and the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority. LIRR ticket clerks are paid $28.98 an hour. The median elsewhere is $24.48. So LIRR workers have a good deal, and yes, it is expensive for us to live here.

The unions have a strong hand to play. They've gone four years without a contract and two nonbinding White House mediation boards have found reasonable the union's offer of a six-year pact with pay raises averaging 2.85 percent a year and a first-ever employee contribution for health coverage.

But that's blind to local reality. In May, New York City's bus and subway workers overwhelmingly ratified a deal with raises totaling 8 percent over five years. The key difference? Subway and bus workers can't strike.

Armed with the right to walk, LIRR workers have little incentive to accept anything less than the mediators recommended. The MTA has little leverage to push them off that position. How did they land in this situation? It's largely due to the LIRR's history. It was incorporated in 1834 to provide freight and passenger service. After 132 years of private ownership, it was acquired by the MTA in 1966. Because of its freight origins, the LIRR is covered by the 1926 federal Railway Labor Act, which allows workers to strike, rather than New York's Taylor Law, which prohibits strikes by public employees.

The federal law was enacted in an era when a rail strike could cripple the nation. The goal was to avoid any interruption of commerce by requiring mediation. It hasn't worked. LIRR workers have walked out repeatedly, most recently for 11 days in 1987 and 45 hours in 1994. The result is a situation that's become costly and untenable for riders and taxpayers.

So, what to do? In a word, privatization. The MTA should negotiate for the right to privatize future additions to the system -- for instance, should the LIRR establish a new feeder service using smaller and faster cars to bring passengers on its slower lines to major stations.

Nassau's decision to privatize its bus system in 2011 has saved the county tens of millions of dollars. As riders brace for another rail strike, it's time to consider a similar future for the LIRR.