WASHINGTON – The Transportation Trades Department of the AFL-CIO has joined the chorus of organizations asking federal regulators to address Class I railroad service problems.
“It is clear that a lack of oversight has allowed Class I railroads to operate in a manner that is harmful to shippers, employees, and the American public, and these issues will not resolve out of self-regulation by the carriers,” TTD President Greg Regan wrote in a letter sent to the Surface Transportation Board on Monday. “We urge the Board to continue to delve into the service issues faced by shippers, and how these issues have been caused or exacerbated by an overly reduced workforce.”
Regan blames the railroads for crew shortages that have contributed to service problems that have affected shippers, including the National Grain and Feed Association, which wrote to the STB last month. “As NGFA correctly asserts, the scourge of Precision Scheduled Railroading (PSR) looms large in the disruptions its members are currently facing, as well as in the degraded service the freight rail network is providing broadly,” Regan wrote.
The grain shipper group said that severe delays in rail shipments have forced some mills to shut down or curtail production and put livestock and poultry producers at risk of running out of feed. “The notion that our nation’s food supply chain is threatened by the continued negligence and intransigence of the railroad industry is both stunning and unacceptable,” Regan wrote.
In the five years prior to the pandemic, the railroads made deep cuts to their train and engine workforces, with BNSF Railway T&E employment down 27%, NS down by 24%, and UP down by 32%, Regan wrote.
“It is completely unsurprising that this would result in crew shortages and rigid inflexibility in the network. These cuts have occurred with complete impunity for the railroads, and we continue to urge the Board to consider the impacts of these ill-considered mass layoffs on service quality,” Regan wrote.
Railroads furloughed workers at the onset of the pandemic, brought them back slowly as traffic rebounded, and have had trouble hiring new conductors amid the tightest job market in decades.
New attendance policies create fatigue-related safety concerns, Regan says. “Rather than pursue real measures to return headcount to appropriate levels, the carriers have instead focused on extracting maximal hours from the existing workforce under the threat of discipline and termination. In an industry where fatigue is already endemic, further increasing the workload for existing employees is simply unsustainable,” he wrote.
Regan was particularly critical of BNSF, the lone Class I railroad to not adopt a PSR operating model. BNSF has compounded crew shortages by running trains over siding lengths and reducing train speeds, both of which make for longer trips and require trains to be recrewed short of their normal crew-change points, Regan says.
The labor organization’s umbrella includes unions representing locomotive engineers, conductors, train dispatchers, and maintenance-of-way employees.