As face-to-face negotiations to avert a possible state-wide rail strike took a day off Wednesday, another issue appeared to generate differing viewpoints from the two sides: What will happen at midnight Saturday if no agreement is reached?
As they did in the days leading up to Sandy in October 2012, New Jersey Transit officials said they have a plan to gradually shut down rail service across the state if no contract agreement is reached with rail worker unions.
New Jersey Transit interim executive director Dennis Martin didn't offer details Wednesday, but said it has worked with unions on how to implement the plan.
A union official said that isn't the case and that NJ Transit hasn't shared its plans or sought input.
"We had hoped to have some meetings with NJ Transit to have an orderly shutdown," but those meetings didn't go as planned, said Stephen Burkert, chairman of SMART, a coalition of unions involved in the negotiations.
Trains couldn't be stopped cold right at the strike deadline at 12:01 a.m. Sunday, Burkert said, but would have to be gradually taken out of service. Otherwise, equipment — and, more important, passengers — would be left in the wrong places.
Martin said that won't happen.
"We have contingencies that would prevent anybody from getting stranded," he said.
When asked what rail riders should do if they are planning to take trains Saturday night, Martin added, "If I were them I would make travel plans consistent with what we have scheduled, but after midnight plan to have another alternative."
On the back end of a strike, Burkert added, even a shutdown of 24 hours could result in another few days of inspections to equipment and infrastructure before full service could resume.
Contract negotiations are to resume Thursday, after both sides reported progress was made during talks Tuesday. Burkert said Wednesday would be spent reviewing proposals made Tuesday.
"Today's the day we're sitting by ourselves and going over the numbers and seeing what works for everybody," he said. "We're dealing with 4,200 workers, so you want to make sure the numbers you're proposing are accurate in every way."
Burkert said the major issues that divide the two sides — wage increases, workers' health care payments and contract length — are still on the table. Both sides said progress was made Tuesday.
"I'm not a betting man, but we are going to remain talking until we get this thing settled," Martin said when asked to offer odds on a strike being averted.
An NJ Transit spokeswoman said the agency has plans to accommodate rail pass-holders in the event of a shutdown, but didn't provide details.