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The perils of precision scheduled railroading

‘Many things go undetected and it’s starting to show’

A worker looks at equipment. (Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves)

Although almost all of the Class I railroads have been deploying precision scheduled railroading (PSR), an operational model that seeks to streamline operations, for several years already, a number of issues keep the debate over its value alive.

The railroads have argued that PSR provides shippers with consistent and reliable service. Proponents of PSR contend that shippers previously had to wait until a train was long enough in order for them to receive service, making service more erratic. Having that stability helps freight rail become more trucklike, they say. Implementing PSR has also helped the railroads lower their operating ratio, a gauge derived by a formula that helps investors determine the financial health of a company.

But the unions representing craft employees and train and engine crews — the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, SMART-TD, Transportation Trades Department of the AFL-CIO, the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes, among others — generally have been skeptical of PSR, in large part because the operational model also seeks to cut costs, and one way to cut costs is to reduce employee headcount. Since 2016, the yearly average of those employed by the U.S. operations of the Class I railroads has fallen roughly 25%, according to data submitted to the Surface Transportation Board.

The yearly average of the total number of employees working for the U.S. operations of the Class I railroads. The 2021 average is through June.

The rail unions argue that PSR’s emphasis on adhering to a strict train schedule jeopardizes the ability of workers such as signal maintainers and carmen from doing a thorough inspection. They also argue that the job cuts have been too deep, resulting in a freight rail industry that doesn’t have enough network capacity for when rail volumes grow or when congestion issues arise in the supply chain.

“They want to run the leanest railroad they could possibly run to produce historic operating revenues to entice investors,” said a freight rail policy expert with one of the unions. But “the railroads are running themselves so lean that they are only capable of the railroad of today. They are not capable of running railroads when there are economic shocks or changes in shipping patterns.”

Union members also believe that rail derailments, such as the September fatal derailment involving an Amtrak train running on track owned by BNSF (NYSE: BRK.B), have increased in recent years. 

According to the Federal Railroad Administration, most derailments occur within the confines of rail yards and not on mainline track.

CY 2012CY 2013CY 2014CY 2015CY 2016CY 2017CY 2018CY 2019CY 2020CY 2021 (through July)
Source: Federal Railroad Administration

The debate about PSR comes as 12 labor unions and 30 freight railroads are in the midst of a multiyear effort to negotiate and reach a collective bargaining agreement that will last for several years. The agreement will address wages, benefits and health care, and workplace safety and operating rules, according to the Association of American Railroads, the trade group representing the Class I railroads.

Below are some thoughts about PSR from two union members who argue that PSR is squeezing employees’ abilities to perform their roles fully.

‘We all know that things aren’t getting done’

Randy has been working as a signal maintainer for a Class I railroad for nine years. His full name hasn’t been disclosed in order to protect his identity.

As a signal maintainer, Randy conducts monthly and quarterly inspections of the signals at railroad crossings and at other areas within his assigned territory. The inspections involve adhering to standards developed by the FRA.

When Randy first started, the railroad treated him and his colleagues well.

“Everything was great. I really can’t say enough good things about how they treated us in the beginning,” Randy said. 

Things started to change when his railroad implemented PSR, according to Randy. One of the biggest changes has been the declining number of employees working for the railroad, coupled with greater responsibilities for each remaining worker. The territory that each signal maintainer was responsible for grew, while the managers overseeing the work of the signal maintainers are also responsible for ensuring that a greater amount of territory is being properly inspected, according to Randy.

Another change is PSR’s impact on the timing of the inspections, according to Randy. Because the trains run on a fixed schedule, the dispatchers are reluctant to give the signal maintainers the time they need to conduct a thorough inspection because they don’t want to delay the trains. Meanwhile, the signal maintainers feel pressure to get all their inspections completed, Randy said.

“When you stretch them thin, in my eyes … a lot of those maintainers are going up to those gates and saying, ‘It was working fine the last time. Let me just write the paperwork up.’ Because you just ain’t got time to get it all done,” Randy said. “We all know that things aren’t getting done.”

Randy believes that the railroads will start to hire more employees again because they need more crews to ensure that tracks and the network are functioning well.

“I can tell you beyond a shadow of a doubt, railroads that are running PSR — it’s just a matter of time before the track is in such disrepair that they just don’t have a choice but to hire more people and start going back. … Me personally, I just see PSR as a temporary thing because it just can’t work,” Randy said. When a train that weighs 20,000 tons is running across the rail, “it’s going to break stuff eventually.” 

‘Many things go undetected and it’s starting to show’

Jason Cox says he sees a lot of deferred maintenance occurring among the Class I railroads as a result of PSR.

Cox, who has 25 years of railroad experience, started his career with Norfolk Southern (NYSE: NSC) in 1998. After being furloughed there, he worked for CSX (NASDAQ: CSX). Now he works full time for the union as a general chairman for the Brotherhood of Railway Carmen. Carmen are those who inspect and repair railcars.

Cox says the deferred maintenance comes from the railroads’ decision to shutter multiple inspection points in order to streamline their operations and gain efficiencies. But closing those inspection points means that railcars are running longer miles between inspections. Furthermore, some railcars are being inspected by train crews besides carmen, and those crews aren’t trained to inspect to the standard that a carman has been trained, according to Cox.

“Many things go undetected and it’s starting to show,” Cox said. 

Cox argues that carmen aren’t given enough time to inspect the railcars because of the drive to keep the trains’ schedule. Inspectors used to take up to three minutes per freight car but have now been encouraged to take one minute per car, according to Cox. That time includes the amount of time to walk around the equipment, he said. 

Cox also says there is a growing emphasis on focusing on certain elements of the inspection, such as inspecting the couplers that connect railcars together. While inspectors should examine that, the time constraints prevent them from thoroughly examining safety appliances such as ladders and crosswalks. This practice endangers railroad workers, he says.

“I think they need [to give] their employees the time to safely inspect this equipment. I believe that the inspections that they’re relying on from train crews who are not trained to the standard of the carman [should] be returned back to the carman because they’re the ones who are highly trained and highly specialized, and they’re able to make the determination on the condition of these cars,” Cox said.

The condensed inspection time frame is resulting in employee burnout, Cox said. Furthermore, since there are fewer workers inspecting the cars, that means that the remaining carmen have more work to do and more overtime to complete. And as the need for network capacity grows, so does the workload, Cox said. 

“The volunteers for overtime are completely burnt out that they cannot work any more overtime, and now” the railroads are forcing overtime, Cox said. “Members have submitted reports to me that they’re so tired that they worry [about] getting killed or missing a major defect.”

What could help carmen and help the railroads improve safety practices is to reactivate inspection points so that they can go back to the repair shops soon, according to Cox. He believes that allowing time for a quality inspection to find defects will result in people wanting to come back after they’ve been furloughed. 

The utilization of technology should also enhance inspectors’ safety practices, not replace the efforts of inspectors, according to Cox. 

“The evolution of technology in large part has been good for the railroads [but] they want to use the technology to keep the status quo. … Technology should not supplant — it should work with [people] to allow it to do what it was designed to do, [which is] make the railroad safer,” Cox said.

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  1. Chet P.

    I recently had a train with an inhalation hazard (IH) car. While traveling through a small community I was informed by the warm bearing desk I had a hot car. I inspected the car and notified the desk that the brake shoes on the car had worn down to the metal. I recommended setting out the car because I had an IH car in my train. I was instructed by the company to cut out the air brakes on the car and to move the train. I told them I was not comfortable keeping the car in my train as I had an IH car in my train and should I derail the public could be at risk. Before PSR, the company would have had me set the car out to error on the side of caution. I was told to cut it out, “That’s an order.” So much for public safety.

  2. J.Railroader

    When reading about PSR, the biggest positive comment I typically see is about trains running on schedule. Trains have always ran on a schedule,even before PSR took hold. The problem now is they never run trains on an actual schedule. What trains that ARE running on schedule has only happened due to the reduction in cars being moved.

    In major terminals that moved a lot of trains, the train lengths were increased and even doubled in order to cut operating costs. They have also implemented technology to run the trains that run incredibly slower and less efficiently. When engineers are running the trains, they ran them at track speed and had an incentive to get across their territory. Now? Trains are being ran by a program called trip optimizer. If the track speed is a maximum of 50mph, we typically see the trains running between 30 and 33 mph. They also have the other locomotives not helping to pull the load. This to lower fuel costs. But it also has reduced capacity over that segment of track. Again, the railroads report things being better because only one train may be operating where two used to have to coordinate. That sounds great, until you realize that capacity was actually reduced by PSR. Why? Because the trains can’t get up to speed and can’t meet other trains due to siding and double track capacity. The trains often leave terminals behind schedule and lose time once they are on the line of road.

    PSR is keeping our industry from growing. We have seen reduction in local service throughout the networks. There are still a lot of customers trying to get the surface transportation board to take on their responsibility of making sure the railroads provide service. With the manpower cuts, the railroads can no longer respond in a timely fashion to service disruptions. That derailment in the yard that this article mentions now takes days to recover from because there aren’t crews and engines to move the trains once the track is back in service. The railroads also are slower to respond due to track, signals, and repair people not being there to fix and repair damage from the under maintained network.

    The railroads say they are looking for more traffic, but that is just a flat out lie. There are corridors that every rail knows could take on new and emerging markets. The railroads actively ran customers off these lines in order to justify the cuts. A key corridor from Detroit to Atlanta and points south are being neglected by rail. The CSX main from Cincinnati to Atlanta, for example, used to see dozens of trains daily. Most of that traffic once was coal. Now? There are maybe 6-8 trains a day. One or two coal trains, a freight each way, and a bulk train. When the L&N owned this line, they had upwards of 60 scheduled trains a day. Passenger trains before 1971 increased that number, too.There are plenty of opportunities to grow the traffic where coal no longer is the major market. That costs money and ingenuity to bring those markets to rail. PSR is keeping those investments from being put back into the networks. For example,they seem to have zero interest in trying to compete in the intermodal markets where the highways are saturated such as this corridor. And it’s hurting the economy.

    Bottom line, PSR is a fad that need to go the way of the dodo bird. It’s keeping the railroads from actually supporting a growing population and growth of cities and the suburbs alike by not taking on the increases in traffic that are sorely needed.

    The issues you see mentioned in this article are the symptoms of an operating plan that the workers have been trying to point out to the general public. We as workers have been waiting for the day we actually see the railroads figure out what we already know; PSR only works for the stock holders.

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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.