Thrown under the bus

No matter how long this SEPTA strike lasts, let’s hope Day 2 was rock bottom. It couldn’t get much worse.

An R5 Paoli train caught fire yesterday during the morning rush, just outside the Overbrook station. A SEPTA official said the likely cause was electrical.

The train was packed with nearly 700 passengers. Nobody was injured, but the suburban commuter line was shut down for two hours, complicating an already chaotic rush hour. Many commuters walked off the tracks to look for alternatives. Others waited for help from SEPTA.

SEPTA spokesman Richard Maloney said the transit agency tried to send “rescue” buses to the scene to transport stranded passengers, but picketers from Transport Workers Local 234 prevented the buses from leaving the Victory terminal at 69th Street.

Victory Division buses serve Delaware County and the Main Line, and its employees are not on strike. But the picketers from the city division allowed buses to move about once every 45 minutes, and SEPTA got only four buses to the burned-out train.

“Despicable,” Maloney said. “It was a whole new population that they can inflict pain on.”

Eventually, the city sent school buses to pick up some of the passengers.

The massive inconvenience of a strike is a given. But compounding a potential public safety hazard, by blocking buses intended to retrieve passengers who escaped a fire, takes the union’s irresponsibility to a different level.

In spite of enduring delays and higher costs, commuters are mostly taking it in stride. Some are carpooling, or riding bikes.

City schools set up blogs for students who cannot make it to class, so they can keep up with assignments. The cycling club at Central High School set up a “valet” service for students who ride to school, parking bikes in a gym.

The more details to emerge from the reasonable contract that SEPTA offered its largest union, the more difficult it is to understand why Local 234 decided to walk out. The two sides reportedly were only $4 million apart when negotiations broke down. Gov. Rendell and Rep. Bob Brady (D., Pa.) were working again yesterday to resolve the impasse.

In the meantime, those involved with this strike can’t just throw public safety under the bus.