Class I rail headcount plunges to new low in November

Drop in headcount occurred despite 3% growth in U.S. rail volumes

Employee headcount among the U.S. operations of the Class I railroads in November was at its lowest level since at least early 2012.

U.S. operations of the Class I railroads employed 114,960 in mid-November, which is 13.7% lower than November 2019 and 1.58% lower than October, according to data submitted to the Surface Transportation Board

November’s total is the lowest in 2020 and the lowest total since January 2012, which is the earliest date for which FreightWaves has data.

All six employee categories posted year-over-year and sequential declines. The steepest year-over-year percentage decrease was for employees responsible for the maintenance of equipment and stores. That category totaled 18,242 employees, down nearly 22% from November 2019 while 2.4% lower sequentially.

Meanwhile, the headcount total for train and engine (T&E) employees was 46,434, 15% lower than November 2019 and 0.7% lower than October. 

Although the T&E category tends to be more reflective of market conditions, the T&E headcount total in November was flat to lower despite an increase in rail volumes. 

Indeed, November rail volumes in the U.S. rose 3.1% to 2.04 million carloads and intermodal units, although that growth came mainly from higher intermodal traffic. U.S. intermodal traffic was up 11.5% in the month to 1.14 million containers and trailers, but U.S. carloads were down 5.8% to 900,194, according to the Association of American Railroads (AAR).

One reason why headcount totals were lower in November despite higher rail volumes is that almost all of the Class I railroads are operating some version of precision scheduled railroading (PSR), an operating model that seeks to streamline operations.  

Year-to-date traffic in the U.S. totaled 24.3 million carloads and intermodal units for the week ending Saturday, a 7.6% decline from the same period a year ago. Of that total, U.S. carloads are down 13.2% to 11.1 million, while intermodal units are down 2.3% to 13.2 million containers and trailers.

Last week, total U.S. weekly rail traffic was 2.5% higher at 520,305 carloads and intermodal units.

U.S. rail carloads (blue: RTOTC.USA), intermodal trailers (orange: RTOIT.CLASSI) and containers (green: RTOIC.CLASSI) over the past year. (FreightWaves SONAR)

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Joanna Marsh

Joanna is a Washington, DC-based writer covering the freight railroad industry. She has worked for Argus Media as a contributing reporter for Argus Rail Business and as a market reporter for Argus Coal Daily.