WASHINGTON — A coalition of rail labor unions has criticized the U.S. Class I railroads’ hiring efforts, their pace of service improvements, and the industry’s safety record in a filing with the Surface Transportation Board.
The big four U.S. railroads — BNSF Railway, CSX, Norfolk Southern, and Union Pacific — have told federal regulators that stepped up staffing levels has produced service improvements, the unions noted.
“With respect to employment and service, the Big 4 are like a high jumper who sets the bar a foot off the ground, steps over it and awards himself/herself a medal. The increases in employment have been minuscule in comparison to prior reductions in employment; and the improvements in service have taken service on some carriers from bad to substandard and others from abysmal to bad,” union lawyer Richard Edelman wrote in a filing last week.
Railroad employment levels for train crews, maintenance of way, and shop forces are up 4% at BNSF, 6% at CSX, 7% at NS, and 4% at UP year over year in August 2023, the unions noted, while pointing out that railroads employ far fewer people than they did in 2016 and 2019.
Employment levels for train crews, maintenance workers, and shop forces is down 13% at BNSF, 22% at CSX, 28% at NS, and 26% at UP compared to 2016, the unions say.
“The railroads credit themselves with having increased employment since this Agency held hearings regarding the service failures of the Class I’s in April of 2022. But climbing a few rungs up a ladder in a hole does not mean one is out of the hole,” Edelman wrote.
The reductions in staffing levels significantly exceed the decline in rail volume, he says. The smaller workforce means that fewer employees have to inspect, maintain, and repair the same infrastructure. Edelman also says that despite train and engine crew hiring efforts, the railroads remain understaffed and are pressuring employees to work without days off.
The railroads also have distorted their safety records, Edelman claims, by focusing on the number of annual main line derailments without noting the significant reduction in the number of road freights that they operate per day.
The unions say that Federal Railroad Administration data for 2013-2022 shows that each of the Big Four systems have experienced an increase in the rate of accidents and incidents per million train miles.
“The FRA data (that account for the fewer longer trains) do show an overall increase in accidents/incidents per million train miles, a dramatic increase in the rate of yard accidents and incidents, an increase in the rate of road accidents and incidents, and an overall increase the rate of road accidents and incidents excluding grade crossings, with BNSF essentially holding steady and the others in the Big 4 showing increases in that category too. It is certainly not the case that recent data show an improvement in rail safety as contended by the AAR,” Edelman wrote.
The unions urged the STB to continue to “press the railroads on the adequacy of service they provide, and the adequacy of their workforces to provide levels of service that satisfy their common carrier obligations.”
The unions included represented in the filing include the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen/IBT, Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes Division/IBT; Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen; International Association Of Boilermakers; International Association Of Machinists And Aerospace Workers District 19; International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers Mechanical Division; National Conference of Firemen and Oilers, 32BJ/SEIU, and the Transport Workers Union of America.