Striking transit workers block regional rail at rush hour

PHILADELPHIA – Striking transit workers were preventing some regional train crews from reporting to work Tuesday, causing the cancellation of a significant number of trains to the suburbs at the start of the evening rush, the city’s main transit agency said.

The Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority said it was in court seeking an injunction to prevent pickets from blocking access to facilities where its regional rail crews report to work.

“The union is working with SEPTA’s lawyers to protect the exercise of free speech through picketing while still allowing unfettered access to SEPTA facilities and preventing any form of interference,” said union spokesman Jamie Horwitz.

Earlier Tuesday, stranded commuters jumped on bikes, grabbed cabs and hitched rides with friends or family after SEPTA and a union representing about 4,700 workers failed to reach a contract agreement.

The walkout, which began at 12:01 a.m., shut down buses, trolleys and subways that provide about 900,000 rides a day. No new talks were scheduled.

The strike wasn’t supposed to affect commuter rail lines and service in areas outside the city.

The rail system linking Philadelphia and its suburbs typically transports about 65,000 riders each way per day.

There are 13 regional rail lines, but it wasn’t immediately clear how many trains were cancelled Tuesday evening.

Rail lines serving the suburbs were operating Tuesday morning but were jammed and running late because of a surge in riders.

Alexia Coleman-Smith split an Uber so she could get to a station to get a train out to the city’s western suburbs. She planned to walk home from the station later in the day to save money.

Brendan McQuiggan used the city’s bike-share service to pedal to his job from the downtown area to Philadelphia’s Old City neighbourhood. He usually takes the subway.

LaBria Wilson usually takes a bus to get to the station where she grabs a train out to the suburbs and the prep school she attends. But on Tuesday, she got up an hour early, and her mother drove her to the train.

In declaring the strike, Transport Workers Union Local 234 President Willie Brown said management “refused to budge on key issues including safety issues that would save lives and not cost SEPTA a dime.”

He said the sides remained far apart on pension and health care issues, as well as noneconomic issues such as shift scheduling, break time and other measures that affect driver fatigue.

SEPTA said it was ready to resume bargaining. If no agreement is reached before Election Day, the agency said it would seek an injunction to restore service on that day “to ensure that the strike does not prevent any voters from getting to the polls and exercising their right to vote.”

It is the ninth strike by city transit workers since 1975. The last one, in 2009, lasted six days.

Among those walking the picket line early Tuesday was Frank Brinkman, a 32-year SEPTA employee. He said he hoped a deal could be worked out soon.

“I feel bad for them, I really do,” he said of transit riders, “but this affects everybody’s families.

“It’s not an easy decision and (SEPTA) say it’s about the taxpayers, but we’re out here and we’re taxpayers, too,” he said.

The city set up a special bus service to get its employees to and from work. Universities and some businesses also arranged new or expanded bus service for employees.

The strike had a major impact on the Philadelphia school system because SEPTA provides rides for nearly 60,000 public, private and charter school students. The district said students wouldn’t be penalized for being late.

Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf and Democratic Mayor Jim Kenney urged the two sides to keep talking. Wolf said the strike was causing “extreme hardships.”

Democratic District Attorney Seth Williams joined transit workers for a photograph on a picket line, tweeting that he was “showing some love for the men & women of TWU Local #234.”


Associated Press writer Kathy Matheson contributed to this report.