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June US Class I rail headcount flat even as volumes grow

Some railroads say they are looking to add employees

June headcount at the U.S. Class I operations was roughly flat from May. (Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves)

June employment levels at the U.S. operations of the Class I railroads were roughly flat with May, growing 0.8% amid a 21% growth in U.S. rail volumes.

Headcount at Class I U.S. rail operations totaled 115,931 employees in June, according to data submitted to the Surface Transportation Board. That’s a 0.37% increase from May but a 0.17% decrease from June 2020.

The slight increase between May and June comes as the U.S. Class I railroads originated 2.56 million carloads and intermodal units in June, compared with nearly 2.12 million carloads and intermodal units in May, according to the Association of American Railroads.

(Surface Transportation Board)

Staffing levels for the train-and-engine (T&E) category rose between May and June, reflecting the increase in volumes between the two months. The T&E category typically is more sensitive to changes in market demand, and an increase in rail volumes could translate into a greater need for T&E crews.

June 2021 headcount for the T&E category was 47,444 employees, a 0.85% increase from May and an 11.54% rise from June 2020.

The category with the largest percentage decline year-over-year was maintenance of equipment and stores. That category totaled 17,659 employees, an 11.64% drop from June 2020 and a 0.42% decline between May and June 2021.

Employment levels of U.S. passenger and freight rail transportation workers over the past year (blue: EMPN.RAIL). (FreightWaves SONAR) To learn more about FreightWaves SONAR, click here.

The fluctuations in employment within the U.S. Class I railroads come as the railroads are still adjusting their operations, both to better align with the principles of precision scheduled railroading (PSR) and to add more network capacity as demand for rail service increases.

Indeed, in response to its long-term business plan, Norfolk Southern (NYSE: NSC) closed some shops in Pennsylvania in July. The closures included the Cresson engine house, where NS will cease mechanical operations. Seven positions will be eliminated there. NS also furloughed 86 employees from the mechanical department in the Juniata/Altoona area.

“We appreciate the hard work and commitment of all the men and women on the Thoroughbred Team and will work with furloughed employees on opportunities to apply for open positions elsewhere in our system,” NS said. 

“These announcements are part of our long-term business plans to evolve our operations to best serve the needs of our customers. We remain committed to the region and serving the needs of our customers,” the railroad said.

But the railroads are also looking to hire additional employees to match headcount with network capacity and rising demand for rail service. Plans to hire additional employees have been made for places where there is less of an available labor pool. CSX (NASDAQ: CSX) said last week that it is seeking to add more train conductors to its roster to smooth out service.

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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.