Businesses are seeing decreased employment numbers even as the nation’s railroads run often particularly long freight trains. Because of this, industry experts are concerned that the actions intended to boost earnings may in fact lower safety capabilities–even bringing about potential catastrophes.
Many railroad roles at companies like CSZ, Norfolk Southern Corp., and Union Pacific Corp were removed over the last few years following the railroading-scheduling system put in place by CSZ–a cost-reducing program referred to as ‘Precision,’ which was so successful that it caused many other railroads throughout the country to utilize similar systems. Even railroads that haven’t implemented such a program, like BNSF, have nevertheless reduced employee numbers in an effort to enhance system performance and continue to be competitive in the industry.
The Federal Railroad Administration has explained that it is currently monitoring such modifications and that, up to now, records do not depict any unsafe operation methods. Still, unions have explained that a new program can be dangerous with such large implications if a train should derail.
Railroads still assert that their changes meant to lower overall costs and lengthen trains have not boosted any potential risks.
“Every time the wheels come off the rail, it’s kind of like buying a lottery ticket to the big disaster,” explained Transportation Communications Union’s carmen division official, Jason Cox.
A majority of railroads utilize a more strategic schedule with fewer less-profitable–or shorter–routes but with fewer overall stops. With Precision, longer trains with a variety of cargo have been able to lower the number of locomotives and employees required to ship the nation’s goods. Railroads have also been able to lower their numbers of trips and engines needing maintenance, as well as the number of workers, when train lengths are extended–some reaching more than 2 miles long.
Because Union Pacific began implementing the new program in 2018, its railroad can utilize longer trains and expanded track sidings, which now allows its longest trains to reach lengths of 9,250 feet–30% more than before the model’s upgrade.
Overall railroad safety has seen improvements over the last few years, with the most predominant railroads releasing statements depicting network investments and safety records. These railroads also explain that they follow federal guidelines in regards to regular inspections–which are often aided by innovative technology programs to scan for defects more easily and efficiently.
“Across the board, I do not see evidence of our workforce at Union Pacific being rushed, overworked, or put in harm’s way,” noted railroad company CEO, Lance Fritz.
Still, though, the current safety research isn’t necessarily reliable, explained University of Tennessee’s Center for Transportation Research director, David Clarke.
“Right now, I just haven’t seen anything to demonstrate that it’s definitely having a negative impact on safety,” he said.
Maintenance work times have been significantly reduced, though, many unions have said. The signalmen overseeing railroad crossing safety signals have noted their areas growing by at least 150%, with less time for repair following completed tests.
“As maintenance gets neglected, then obvious the failures go up,” added Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen vice president, Tim Tarrant.
Additionally, the carmen inspecting a train’s cars have lamented that the time they have to inspect has been cut in half, and with fewer employees, inspections are often conducted by staff with less experience or training.
“From the conductor’s side, we’re basically finding things that are just obvious,” said SMART-TD union national legislative director, Greg Hynes.
For unions, the work now is to make efforts in boosting employment opportunities, but many have noted that the bigger reason for increased staffing is to help ease the potential accidents that could occur because of fewer and less-trained staff maintaining this kind of safety.
“I was hoping to stay a lot longer, but if it means my safety, it’s not going to do me any good staying another day if that means I’m not going to come home,” said Kasondra Bird, a former CSX employee who explained that her worries over safety caused her to resign in December after more than two decades working on the railroad. “Safety and the well-being of employees have definitely taken a backseat to production.”