Berkheimer: Rail issues remain from aborted strike
Special to The Aspen Times
Yes, the recent federally-suppressed rail strike would have created economic chaos and cost Americans billions of dollars daily. But, have we neglected to identify the culprits that created reasons for the strike?
The forced settlement cheats many rail employees of needed sick leave and fails to adequately address bare-bones train staffing that created unsafe conditions.
My long-time interest in railroading dates back to the 1950s in my home county, where the steam era lasted longer than most places. And, that interest prompted me to build two HO-scale model railroads — the first in Pennsylvania and, later, a larger 15-by-19-foot model layout in my Montana home.
My interest in railroading continues today as I read reports on railroad conditions in the United States. For instance, the headline on one opinion story cited the United States as “a First World nation with a Third World rail system.”
In that story, published July 4, 2021, a train-trip dad noted he told his son that Amtrak stands for “A Miserable Train Ride, Kid.” An exaggeration, of course, because Amtrak has been attempting to improve its reputation and service.
That story by Jerry Haar, written for The Hill, observes that Amtrak isn’t likely to produce a profit until Congress increases opportunities for private investors to join in creating a high-speed rail system.
Meanwhile, the problems with our freight-rail system have been growing worse as the number of workers operating trains have dropped to dangerously low levels.
The worker reductions resulted from U.S. owners copying a system developed by a Canadian CEO, called precision scheduled railroading. The system’s intent is running fewer, longer, mixed-freight trains with fewer workers — to increase profits.
As a result, U.S. freight trains grew 25% longer between 2008 and 2017, sometimes as much as 3 miles long.
Writer Caitlin Harrington, in an August article for Wired Business, reported that rail customers, labor unions, and the Surface Transportation Board all agree the “bare-bones operating model stripped the U.S. freight rail system of its resiliency to disruptions,” such as a weather disaster or the COVID pandemic.
The pandemic reduced staffing further as the rail companies continue to reap larger profits.
Harrington cites a Bloomberg analysis that shows “the five largest U.S.-owned companies — BNSF, CSX, Kansas City Southern, Norfolk Southern and Union Pacific — saw operating margins increase by a third over the past decade.
“Profits soared to 41% in 2021” — described as “off the charts” for transportation companies. Record profits were reported by both the 170-year-old BNSF, owned by Warren Buffet, and the 160-year-old Union Pacific.
Workers, however, have complained that the precision scheduling model “heaped more work on them, causing more fatigue, injury, and burnout,” Harrington reported.
After the cuts, one worker noted she began 16-hour shifts, sometimes back-to-back, and saw more of her co-workers getting injured.
Greg Regan, who heads a federation of 37 transportation unions, told Harrington that moving increasing amounts of freight with fewer people working longer hours “increases the risks of injury or accidents.”
He said “more railroaders are leaving what had been a lifelong career because the pay and benefits no longer outweigh the costs of a punishing schedule.” He added that workers furloughed by the railroads during the slower business of the pandemic declined to return when business increased.
One crew foreman reported staff reductions also have taken a toll on maintenance of infrastructure, as workers have less time to check tracks for damage. He said crews would help maintain tracks for smooth running “through a process called tamping.” But now, workers wait for something to break before attending to it.
Harrington also reported unions dispute the safety of “congressionally-mandated automated emergency braking systems to justify plans to remove conductors from trains.” The system automatically stops a train that blows by a signal.
If you can imagine, that allows one engineer to be the sole operator of a train 2 to 3 miles long, sometimes traveling as fast as 70 miles per hour.
Unions argue a second set of eyes and hands are needed to control a lengthy train that sometimes contains hazardous material. They refer to a 2013 disaster in Quebec, when a lone engineer failed to properly secure the train, allowing it to roll down a hill, killing 47 people and destroying most of a downtown. After that, Canada mandated two-person crews.
In July, the Federal Railroad Administration proposed a similar rule, which the railroads association opposes.
Obviously, U.S. railroads have taken the precision scheduled system too far. And, that strikes me as not a good way to run a railroad.
But, it’s an old story: “Stretch workers, and skimp on safety to increase profits.”
Darrell Berkheimer is a retired California journalist whose career spans nearly 60 years. He filled editor positions with newspapers in Pennsylvania, Utah, Georgia, Texas, and New Mexico. He also is the author of several essays books. Contact him at email@example.com.