U.S. transportation officials alarmed by deteriorating rail service

A BNSF rail terminal employee watches for a departing freight train, June 15, 2021, in Galesburg, Ill. [Credit: AP Photo/Shafkat Anowar, File]

At an emergency public hearing in late April, officials from the U.S. Surface Transportation Board (STB) questioned freight railroad executives about deteriorating service. Senior executives from Union Pacific, BNSF, CSX and Norfolk Southern were to attend and outline their plans to improve their performance. The two-day hearing reflected growing concern among the ruling class that the current management of the railroads threatens to harm the U.S. economy, exacerbate supply chain problems and jeopardize war plans with Russia.

Disruptions to rail service are already having widespread and serious ramifications. During the hearing, shippers reported that transit times had increased by 100%, forcing them to reduce or suspend production due to a lack of necessary supplies. Farmers could not get enough fertilizer or feed and considered culling their herds. Power companies fear that long delays in coal deliveries will reduce electricity supplies and disrupt the power grid.

“The country is going to be in a lot of trouble if 30 days and 60 days from now those numbers aren’t much different,” STB Chairman Martin J. Oberman said, referring to the performance metrics of the railways. iron. “If we just rely on hiring, I don’t see you being able to get there in 30, 60 or 90 days. We will miss the sowing season, we have fuel problems. That’s what worries me. »

STB members cited the Class I railroads’ unwavering focus on generating profits for shareholders as the source of the crisis. To reduce costs, “Class I collectively reduced its workforce by 29%, or approximately 45,000 employees cut from the payroll,” Oberman said in a statement. “In my view, all of this has directly contributed to the current situation: rail users are experiencing severe deterioration in rail service because, on too many parts of their networks, the railways simply do not have a sufficient number of employees. The council is concerned that railway job cuts are hurting profits in other industries.

Shippers and union bureaucrats pointed to Precision Scheduled Railroading (PSR) as another cause of the crisis. Although touted as a way to improve customer service, the railways implemented ESP to improve their operating ratios (i.e. the percentage of revenue spent payment of expenses) and benefit their shareholders. The PSR also encourages the use of longer trains – sometimes up to three miles – which cause congestion, delays and accidents.

The railways have been reluctant to change their operations. Union Pacific and BNSF are asking shippers to reduce inventory, essentially making delayed trains their problem. This proposed solution will only aggravate supply shortages.

James Foote, president and chief executive of CSX, resisted calls from shippers to shorten train lengths and restrict train idling. He spoke to STB member Robert Primus during a row over his company’s focus on operating ratios.

Norfolk Southern COO Cindy Sanborn was also recalcitrant. “I don’t believe we face a problem with an operating model,” she said. “We are facing an execution problem.” Norfolk Southern recently announced that it would buy back $10 billion of its own shares to increase their value. Oberman chose the company for review.

Railway resistance to change will maintain the intolerable conditions railway workers face. The RPS destroyed jobs and caused a sharp increase in quits, including among workers with decades of experience. The remaining employees were stretched, which increased fatigue and made conditions more dangerous. The industry’s notoriously inaccurate train queues make it nearly impossible for workers to know when they will be called to work, causing anger and frustration. Additionally, punitive attendance regimes, such as the “Hi-Viz” policy at the BNSF, virtually eliminate the possibility of a life outside of work.

Workers on many Class I railroads have also been without a contract for two years. So even before the current surge in inflation, their wages had not kept up with the rising cost of living. In the days leading up to the hearing, the railroads offered workers monthly advances of up to $600 against any increases they might receive when the contracts were finally finalized. But this amount would represent an increase of less than 1% per year. Additionally, workers would have to repay some of the money if the raises they receive are less than the amount of the payments. Feeling the heat of their members’ anger, the unions described the proposal as “somewhere between a loan and a payday advance“.

Union bureaucrats used the hearing as another forum in which to position themselves as labor advocates. Mark L. Wallace, National Vice President of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET), pledged to submit member feedback on the grueling working conditions at the STB. Yet the solutions Wallace offered were not aimed at improving the quality of life or the safety of workers. They were explicitly aimed at improving customer service and protecting the US economy. Wallace suggested that the railroads eliminate restrictions on train speeds and reduce train lengths to a maximum of 8,500 feet (or 1.6 miles). Because long trains require more train crews, this solution would reduce railway expenses.

Since January, BLET has worked to suppress BNSF worker opposition to the “Hi-Viz” attendance policy. The union enforced an anti-strike injunction, banned its members from speaking publicly about their grievances, and attempted to deflect workers’ anger through an unsuccessful court battle with the company. To establish its credibility, BLET recently placed an advertisement in the Omaha World Herald which lists the questions BNSF and Union Pacific executives “don’t want to be asked” at shareholder meetings this year. Omaha is the headquarters of Berkshire Hathaway, the holding company that owns BNSF.

The railroad’s insatiable pursuit of profit has undermined worker safety and is now causing severe disruption in the transportation of essential goods across North America. Workers cannot secure decent working conditions, including sufficient time off, by turning to unions. These discredited organizations have spent decades integrating themselves into the management structure, their material interests being directly tied to increasing worker exploitation. To wage a real struggle, the railway workers must form new organizations, rank-and-file committees independent of the unions and the two major political parties of the employers. These committees will formulate demands based on the needs of the workers and not on the profit demands of the railway companies. The struggle for better conditions for workers and for the rational management of the supply chain requires a struggle against the capitalist profit system and the establishment of workers’ control over production. It is only through scientific planning that the needs of workers and the broader interests of society can be rationally met.

About Elizabeth Fisk

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