Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

National freight rail strike could have ripple effects in Delaware

A train on the Delmarva Central Railroad spur passing through Georgetown, Delaware.
Paul Kiefer
Delaware Public Media
The Delmarva Central Railroad, which runs south from Porter, interchanges with Norfolk Southern in New Castle County.

Delaware freight operators and workers are preparing for a possible national strike by roughly 60,000 freight rail workers Friday, marking the first national rail strike in three decades.

The strikes will directly impact the Norfolk Southern and CSX lines that run through New Castle County, with ripple effects across the state. Though several smaller unions accepted new contracts in exchange for pay raises, the looming strike by conductors and engineers – without whom trains cannot run – centers on scheduling and time off. Hugh, a Norfolk Southern engineer who has worked for the company for over 30 years, told Delaware Public Media that most new rail employees are on call seven days a week.

“Keep in mind that your average worker starts of their year with 104 off days," he said. "They get two days off per week. We don’t have any of that. We start off with zero off days, so we’re at their beck and call... You can't schedule a doctor's visit, and you can't be sure you'll see your kid graduate from high school."

He added that the grueling schedules have fueled high turnover rates, adding additional strain to remaining workers.

Fewer than 200 Delawareans work in freight rail as of 2019, and workers on the Delmarva Central Railroad – the state’s largest by track length – are not unionized. However, railroad spokesman Cliff Gunstra says Delmarva Central could be cut off from the rest of the country by the strike. “If there was a work stoppage on Norfolk Southern, that would curtail our ability to do our daily interchanges with them.”

A long-term strike would also require the Port of Wilmington to divert freight from the Norfolk Southern yard at Edgemoor — typically an asset for the port — to trucks. "We are working with these customers to try to mitigate the consequences by accommodating as much volume in the pipeline as possible before any rail stoppage," says Port CEO Joe Cruise.

Unlike commuter rail systems in nearby states like Maryland, commuter rail in Delaware won’t be impacted by the strike: SEPTA and Amtrak do not operate on freight rails in Delaware. However, Amtrak announced on Wednesday that it will cancel all long-distance trains — a category that doesn't include most northeast corridor trains — ahead of the impending strike.

Paul Kiefer comes to Delaware from Seattle, where he covered policing, prisons and public safety for the local news site PubliCola.