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updated: 6/14/2014 4:03 PM

Governor asks White House to help end Philly transit strike

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  • A SEPTA regional train, the R7, rolls into 30th Street station in Philadelphia.

      A SEPTA regional train, the R7, rolls into 30th Street station in Philadelphia.
    Associated Press

 
Associated Press

PHILADELPHIA -- Gov. Tom Corbett asked President Barack Obama on Saturday to intervene in a commuter rail strike in the nation's sixth-largest metropolitan area and force union workers to return to their jobs.

The Republican governor said he wants Obama to appoint an emergency board to mediate the contract dispute between the Southeast Pennsylvania Transportation Authority and its engineers and electricians unions. Four hundred workers went on strike at midnight.

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"The people of Philadelphia and the surrounding region expect and deserve a safe and efficient rail system to get them to work, medical appointments, school, and recreation," Corbett said in a statement. "I call on both parties to work together, find common ground and place the riders at the forefront of mind in their discussions."

If the president grants the request, workers must return to work immediately and both parties must continue negotiations, Corbett said.

The unions scheduled a news conference for Saturday afternoon and declined to comment before then.

The move shut down 13 train lines that carry commuters from Philadelphia to the suburbs, Philadelphia International Airport and New Jersey. SEPTA subways, trolleys and buses continue to run.

"My head's going to hurt by the end of this day," said volunteer Rusty Schwendeman of the Traveler's Aid Society, who had helped reroute about two dozen rail travelers Saturday morning at 30th Street Station.

They often involved several connections, longer routes or a significantly higher fare on Amtrak.

Carolyn Tola, of Hamilton Square, New Jersey, and three friends paid $40 apiece to take Amtrak from central New Jersey to Philadelphia to see the Pennsylvania Ballet instead of $9 on Septa.

"We're here," Tola said, noting that the ballet tickets were nonrefundable. "We're going to relax and enjoy it."

The strike began after negotiations between the transit agency and two unions failed to reach a new contract deal Friday. No further talks were scheduled.

The last regional rail strike, in 1983, lasted more than three months.

"I hope it doesn't go that far. I don't anticipate that it would, but I don't know how long it will take us to try to find a common ground -- if there is any," said Stephen Bruno, vice president of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen.

Striking workers are seeking raises of at least 14.5 percent over five years -- or about 3 percentage points more than SEPTA has offered, he said.

The labor conflict came to a head this week after SEPTA announced it would impose a deal beginning Sunday. Terms include raising electrical workers' pay immediately by an average of about $3 per hour; the top wage rate for locomotive engineers would rise by $2.64 per hour.

SEPTA said the union rejected a two-week cooling-off period. Bruno noted that the union has been working without a contract for four years.

The strike adds to the commuting headaches in the region, where major construction projects are making it more difficult than usual to get around.

Drexel University dance team members Beverly and Angela Tomita, 18-year-old twins, had planned to take the airport line for a 2 p.m. flight home to Laguna Beach, California, for the summer.

"That's so not convenient!" Angela Tomita said when she found the region rail entrance closed at 30th Street Station. Schwendeman soon directed them to a subway-and-bus route.

"They're not the best answers, but they're the best answers I can come up with," Schwendeman told another teenager about her three-bus route home to suburban Blue Bell. "I don't want to send anybody to the middle of nowhere, either."

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