By David Shepardson and Lisa Baertlein
WASHINGTON/LOS ANGELES (Reuters) -President Joe Biden’s administration on Tuesday made contingency plans aiming to ensure deliveries of critical goods in the event of a shutdown of the U.S. rail system while pressing railroads and unions to reach a deal to avoid a work stoppage affecting freight and passenger service.
The potential shutdown, which could come as early as Friday, could freeze almost 30% of U.S. cargo shipments, stoke inflation, impede supplies of food and fuel, cost the U.S. economy about $2 billion per day and cause transportation woes.
Railroads including Union Pacific, Berkshire Hathaway’s BNSF, CSX and Norfolk Southern have until a minute after midnight on Friday to reach tentative deals with three hold-out unions representing about 60,000 workers.
Late Tuesay, a Labor Department spokesperson said Secretary Marty Walsh “will host the rail companies and the unions in Washington” at the department Wednesday morning as the Biden administration continues “sustained engagement and hands-on efforts to encourage the parties to come to a mutually beneficial agreement.”
If agreements are not reached, there could be union strikes or employer lockouts. But the railroads and unions also could agree to stay at the bargaining table or the Democratic-led U.S. Congress could intervene by extending talks or establishing settlement terms.
The Biden administration’s push comes as food, energy, automotive and retail groups implore Congress to intervene, saying a rail shutdown could threaten everything from global grain supplies to shipments of goods related to Christmas holiday shopping.
White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said the administration is asking truckers and air shippers to assist should rail service cease and also is considering invoking emergency authorities. Jean-Pierre added that the administration is hosting daily interagency meetings to assess which supply chains and commodities are at highest risk.
The White House has told railroads and unions that “a shutdown is unacceptable and will hurt American workers, families and businesses, and they must take action to avert it,” a White House official told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity.
One key issue is ensuring “continued distribution of vital hazardous materials that depend on rail transport, such as chlorine for water treatment plants,” this official added. Railroads on Monday stopped accepting shipments for hazardous materials such as chlorine and chemicals used in fertilizer so they are not stranded in unsafe locations if rail traffic stops.
The U.S. energy sector relies on railroads to move coal, crude oil, ethanol and other products.
Some railroads plan to impose additional restrictions that could impact food suppliers and online retailers that use intermodal services that connect ships, trains and trucks. BNSF, which serves the western United States, said it will stop accepting refrigerated intermodal cargo. Norfolk Southern, which serves the eastern United States, said it will stop accepting all intermodal shipments.
U.S. passenger railroad Amtrak, which uses tracks maintained by freight railways, is facing growing disruptions. Amtrak said it will cancel trains on seven more long-distance routes on Wednesday after it began canceling trains on four long-distance routes on Tuesday.
The stakes are high for Biden, who has vowed to rein in soaring consumer costs ahead of November elections that will determine whether his fellow Democrats maintain control of Congress.
Biden appointed an emergency board in July to create a framework for settlement terms.
That has not happened since the early 1990s, when Congress sent the parties into final and binding arbitration.
Unions in the current talks have been offered significant pay increases. Three of 12 unions, representing about half of the 115,000 workers affected by the negotiations, have yet to sign deals. They are grappling with railroads over working conditions that they have said worsened after the industry slashed its workforce by almost 30% during the past six years.
Rail customers have said a shutdown will send them scrambling for alternative transportation and storage for everything from ammonia and fuel to cars and chicken feed.
It takes about four trucks to handle cargo in a single rail car. The United States does not have the estimated 467,000 trucks or the necessary labor to support such a shift. Beyond that, some cargo is too heavy or large to travel over the road.
A rail work stoppage could strike as U.S. farmers harvest corn, wheat and soybeans for export around the world, according to the National Grain and Feed Association.
“The economic damages across the food and agricultural supply chain would be swift and severe,” the group said.
Justin Louchheim, senior director of government affairs at the Fertilizer Institute, which represents companies that rely on ammonia supplies, added: “When you contemplate global food security, I’d say it’s a crisis right now.”
Automakers worry that a disruption could empty dealer showrooms by stranding cars in the wrong places. Toyota said it would have to store vehicles and “many locations would run out of storage within two to four days of production.”
(Reporting by David Shepardson and Lisa Baertlein; Additional reporting by Ben Klayman, Joe White, Laura Sanicola, Stephanie Kelly, Arathy Somasekhar and Tom Polansek; Editing by Will Dunham and Stephen Coates)