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(OPINION) The Railroad, Today’s Version

A pair of coal trains idle at a switchyard near a coal loadout facility in northeast Wyoming. (Alan Nash/WyoFile)

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By Steven Halbrook

There has recently been a lot information shared on the Railroads policies and struggles to meet customer expectations. We have witnessed the cutting of small switching yards to consolidate into large yards creating a single “hub.”  At the same time, cutting essential jobs such as carman and mechanical forces with the expectation of more work to be done with fewer people and less tracks. And now they ask, “Why is there congestion in and around the yards?”

These measures, along with the constant reduction of manpower due to retirements, resignations and furloughs, took the ability to staff crews of all crafts to a near impossible level. The railroad made record profits during this process. Then the pandemic hit, business demand was reduced, and a reduction of availability due to illnesses of the employees and the need to quarantine. The Railroads decided that since demand was down, they must furlough workers. The remaining employees were then categorized as “essential employees.” The employees stepped up in this environment of the pandemic that took hundreds of thousands of lives in America, and maintained the railroads’ ability to run trains. In the employee’s eyes, they were doing what it took to keep America and its economy on track to a recovery. The railroads continued to make record profits. Were the employees rewarded for their sacrifices and efforts…NO!

Instead of the Railroads ramping up efforts to acquire new employees to replace those that were lost, the Railroads answer was to create a more demanding attendance policy. This occurred while under the old attendance policy they were seeing record profits. We saw Railroads buying back stock with their profits, ignoring the facts that their fleet of locomotives were failing, tracks failing, and railyards becoming more and more congested. Their answer is to make the trains longer and plan on cutting positions of the ground crews, which, by the way, are essential to efficient operations and the safety of not only the crews but also for the public.

The demand of the working environment is becoming more and more public knowledge. Working on call 24/7, being required to report immediately upon receiving your call for duty, never knowing when you will be going to work. The call could come in 30 minutes or 30 hours, but you must be ready to accept that call. You will be required to spend time away from your family, laying over at the end of the road. Once again, never knowing when you will be called, in 6, 10, 18 hours or even 24 plus hours. This creates the problem of going to work after possibly being up 16 to 18 hours, with a full shift ahead of you which, when done, the employee will have been awake for over 30 hours. By the time you get home you will be exhausted, you will have been away from your family for 48 hours or possibly more. Then, due to the self-inflicted manpower shortage you may very well be called for your next tour of duty on your rest (11.5 hrs); starting the cycle over again! It must be noted, that when a person does not know when they will go to work, it presents a challenge to even schedule an event such as a doctor’s appointment. To ensure you will be at the appointment, you may have to lay off 48 hours prior. Thus, missing a paid trip which could be up to 20% of your paycheck and then being reprimanded for laying off, heaven forbid if you are actually sick at the time. Now, the opinion of the railroad is it’s the employees’ fault for not working enough, they are causing the problem. How dare they expect to have time at home, the Railroad and its profits are more important.

This has created a problem in recruitment. The railroads are now offering new hire bonuses to prospective employees, believing this is the answer. They continue to ignore the fact where the problem actually lies; the extreme working conditions. Potential employees are now putting a value on their lives and their families’ lives on a higher level than just money. The focus on hiring new individuals is necessary, but just as necessary, if not more, is to focus on how to retain the workforce they have now. If the current well trained and experienced workforce cannot meet the demanding expectations of the railroad, how in any rational way can they assume they will be able to retain any new-hired employees?

Do the wages need to be commensurate with the demands? Absolutely! The railroad’s employees have not had a raise in over 3 years, or a substantial wage increase which would exceed the cost of living and inflation many years prior. Employees also face higher rates for less coverage on their insurance. The Railroads are self-insured with agencies like United Health Care as administrators only. The increased costs passed along to the employees allow for one thing, more profits for the Railroad.

The Railroads total focus on immediate record profits has now had an effect on their customers. It has grown extreme enough that the Surface Transportation Board had to schedule hearings to investigate the cause. The cause, if you listen to the railroads, is no manpower. This is partially true, but it is something that could and should have been prevented. It was self-inflicted with the focus of more immediate profits.

The Railroads have intentionally created this workforce shortage, for one reason which is now being put out to the public. They are telling agencies such as the Surface Transportation Board they must go to single-man crews on the trains. Cut the number of employees on the trains and put the conductors (which they will be able to reduce by 50 to 75%) in a ground-based position. In these positions, they project one conductor could protect three or more trains in a shift. A major problem with this, among many others, is now you are having one person in the cab of the locomotive, one set of eyes not only running the trains but also doing administrative work, one set of eyes watching out not only ahead of the train for challenges and dangers, but also watching the train itself for items like sticking brakes, smoke and mechanical failures. Many of these failures require immediate attention. There is no time to wait for 3-4 hours for a ground-based employee to come to your assistance. This would now promote congestion on the main lines, similar to the results in the new consolidated yards. In most locations, it is impossible to get to a location unless you are high railing (having vehicles equipped with facilities which enable the vehicle to traverse the rail) and then you will only be able to make it to the rear of the train. Please don’t forget the Railroads want to run “Mega Trains”. Trains which are close to 3 miles long and weigh over 40,000 tons.  Now add sub-zero temperatures and inclimate weather you have a recipe for disaster. With many mechanical failures, the train must be secured immediately, brakes on each car must manually be operated. If ascending a grade, they must be tied to the front of the train, if descending on the rear of the train.

Let us not forget what can happen if a train is not secured properly. All we have to remember is the horrific incident at Lac-Megantic, “The runaway train that destroyed a town.[1] An incident in which 47 people lost their lives in a small eastern Quebec town. Twenty-seven children lost their parents, over 2000 people were evacuated and dozens of homes were destroyed, and forty buildings had to be razed. Lac-Megantic was a horrible preventable tragedy. The train at Lac-Megantic was hauling crude oil. God forbid, if this would have happened in a highly populated area like Denver, Seattle or Kansas City, while hauling a hazardous product such as chlorine. Please click on the link at the end of the article and look at the similarities of root causes that existed then, and now in today’s railroad. Yes, this was the result of a one-man crew, among many other things. For what reason? To attain the ultimate goal, unfettered, ever-increasing profit margins.

Even now, the mantra is the same; fewer people equal more competitive advantage, which equals more profit. Today’s manpower is under extreme policies which is causing major fatigue, both physical and mental. Resignations are becoming commonplace. The manpower who served once as “essential employees” are now just an expendable tool. The manpower who has served as a valuable cog to keep the railroad running is no longer considered an asset, only a cost. Not only has the Railroad not credited or rewarded their employees who went above and beyond during the pandemic, they are now restricting their very livelihood. They have the mindset that their employees should “live to work” instead of “work to live.”

Many years ago, when attendance guidelines were first instituted on the railroad, the Unions protested and took the issue to arbitration. The arbitration was in part a success for the Railroad. Some called it a win. But the arbitrator’s opinion and award stated basically that indeed the railroad had the right to propagate an attendance policy to meet business needs to satisfy customer’s expectations. But it was also noted that these attendance policies must be reasonable.  Three items were discussed which must be fulfilled to meet the “reasonable” standard: 1.) time off to be rested, 2.) time in which a person could conduct personal business and 3.) time for leisure.

It is very unfortunate that we must plead for such a commonsense standard as an attendance policy being reasonable. We are expected to negotiate reasonableness. In the Railroad’s eyes, nothing more should be given until the employees sacrifice items that have been negotiated in the past.

We should not be under a policy that resembles slave labor more than reasonable standards. Congress at one time had to step in and mandate the railroad through the Rail Safety Improvement Act to ensure that railroad workers had enough time just to become rested! Let that sink in, Congress had to mandate the railroad to allow their employees enough time just to get rested!

So, Congress took care of the first part of reasonableness, we are still very much lacking in the final two measures. One is a time in which a person could conduct personal business; this would be items like doctors or dentist’s appointments, closing on a house, basic items as simple as taking care of a home or vehicle, laundry, grocery shopping…essentials of life. Without these considerations, it puts the responsibility and prompts stress upon the spouses and places undue burdens upon them. Of course, this assumes they aren’t single, which is very possible because divorce runs rampant in the rail industry due to many of the facts we are currently discussing.

The final measure, which is just as important as all the others if not more, is time for leisure. Every person in this nation is entitled to time for leisure. A time in which they can enjoy the fruits of their labor. A time to spend with family and friends. A time to spend with the most rewarding and beautiful creation on earth, our children. Time to watch them grow, mature, a time to support them, nurture and encourage them. A time to be able to show them respect and love. Watching them participate in sports or other events they enjoy. Watching and actively participating with them as they grow through the stages of life to adulthood. A time to be a supporting role in the family, a time to be a husband, wife, or spouse. A time for life. I remember reading an article that mentioned the right to the pursuit of happiness. Well, it seems the railroad doesn’t agree!

The Railroads play a huge part in the nation’s economy. Transporting massive amounts of products from border to border, east to west, north to south. The Railroads are truly a piece of the formation of our nation by establishing the transcontinental railroad. Still today, it plays a major role in the transportation of goods to major customers across the nation. Unfortunately, the Railroads are failing to meet these customer demands. The failure is for one reason: more profit, profit to the point of greed.  Profit to the point of ignoring the effects on the nation’s economy, ignoring the effects on the customers and ignoring the effects on their own workforce, who perform the duties to make sure the products get to the end user safely and efficiently.

The focus should be on the customer, but who is the customer? We can look at the chain of products, raw products to manufacturers, then to retailers, then to the consumers. The shipment of products such as chemicals, grain, and coal, transported to the ports or to destinations within our Nation. What has become corporate greed, has caused prices for goods and services to skyrocket. Those down the line in the supply chain have no recourse but to lay people off, lose their farms, or close factories. In many cases they will increase prices to cover the increases of the railroad. These layoffs create challenges for employees. These price increases create challenges for the downchain retailers. These prices are borne by the end user, the consumer.

Who are the customers? They are the working class of America; they are the backbone of the nation. They are the drivers of the economy. So, when it is said that the railroad isn’t meeting customer expectations, those customers are ultimately you, the consumer, the worker, the American populace.

This isn’t just about the employees of the railroad, or the polices put in place, this is about the total focus on the profits, not long-term profits, but immediate and always increasing profits. This is about the egotistical prostitution of the Stagger Act. This is about the creation of monopolies and duopolies. The workers, the customers be damned, the Railroads will meet their bottom-line goals of never ending, always increasing immediate profits. They hamstring anyone who gets in their way, take their share now, then take the profits and run. Will it destroy some of the basic foundations of our society, very possibly, but their pockets will be full and everyone else, their lives, the nation’s economy; well, they were just an expense, an inconvenience in their venture of more, never ending profits.

Welcome to “Today’s version of the Railroad”. The Railroads have no one is to blame for their woes but themselves and they and only they should be held accountable for their lack of responsibility and actions! There was a saying used at one time when a person was wronged. They were “getting railroaded.” It sure seems like that definitely applies today!

       This is my opinion and mine only. This does not in any way speak for any organization. This is an opinion created from 27 years of working on the Railroad, in positions in Safety, Local Union Representation, Conductor, Engineer, as well as duties as a Vice General Chairman of the Union. But more importantly, it is justified by my “life” I have lived of being a “Rail.”

[1] Lac-Megantic: The runaway train that destroyed a town – BBC News