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Union leaders criticize precision scheduled railroading

The implementation of precision scheduled railroading (PSR) has contributed to dwindling morale and could result in creating unsafe working conditions should the federal government withhold intervention, according to union witnesses at a June 20th Congressional hearing on rail safety.

“If [the rail industry] is left to self-regulate, the PSR operating model will do what is cheapest and not what is safest and in the best interest of the public or our members,” said Jerry C. Boles, president of the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen at “The State of the Rail Workforce” hearing held by the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials.

Union witnesses said the deployment of PSR, an operating model which seeks to run trains on a fixed schedule, has resulted in worker fatigue and a sense of job uncertainty because of the railroads’ efforts to lower headcount and spread out job duties among fewer employees.

Meanwhile, questions about the safety of running longer trains and the government’s role in regulating the rail industry’s foray into artificial intelligence also took centerstage during the hearing.

“We want the carriers to be profitable. However, we are concerned that PSR is detrimental,” said Andrew W. Sandberg, assistant to the president and directing general chairman of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers District Lodge 19. The railroads are furloughing employees while running longer trains on the strictest of schedules and forcing employees to meet deadlines, he said.

At the heart of the inquiry by the subcommittee’s Democratic members was whether Congress should be more proactive about regulating the rail industry as a result of the operational and headcount cuts brought about by PSR.

“We seem to be entering a new era of railroading where only less is better… This is not long-term sustainable or sustainable,” said Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Oregon). DeFazio is chair of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. His state witnessed worker layoffs at rail facilities owned by Union Pacific (NYSE: UNP) earlier this year.

“Across the Class I network, we’re seeing a reduction of costs, labor and service, all for the sake of achieving lower and lower operating ratios,” DeFazio said. He also alluded to a future hearing to gather shippers’ testimonies on PSR.

Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) Administrator Ron Batory countered that his agency engages in safety rulemaking to gather data or when data supports the need for safety regulations.

“FRA realizes its responsibility to ensure railroad operations are as safe as they can be,” Batory said, citing data declining accident levels.

Below is a recap of just some of the issues discussed:

The work environment post-PSR

Union witnesses said PSR has contributed to deteriorating morale and worsening working conditions because of the railroads’ efforts to reduce headcount while expanding workers’ responsibilities. While the railroads argue that they are reducing operational redundancies, the push to be more efficient is creating demanding work schedules amid fewer available staff, witnesses said.

“While rail worker productivity has never been better and Class I railroads have been enjoying multi-billion dollar profits over the years, employment levels have been headed in the other direction, with thousands of railroad employees furloughed,” said Dennis R. Pierce, president of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen.

While the downturn in rail traffic and the deployment of technologies are factors that have caused employment levels to fall, “the most serious threat to the workforce, at least in the short- term, is the industry’s fascination with precision scheduled railroading or PSR,” Pierce said.

Pierce said that PSR has eliminated many of the jobs related to train line ups and the balancing of crews when rail traffic is not even, which has resulted in an unpredictable work schedule for engineers and conductors. He asked the committee to press FRA to pursue regulations governing rail worker fatigue.

Other union witnesses shared additional issues. John Previsich, president of the SMART Transportation Division, said his union has asked the railroads to modify their operations so that rail workers are given a 10-hour notice of when they might have to return to work. Boles said maintenance positions are being abolished and reestablished with larger territories, which often come with more testing requirements. This results in less time for preventative maintenance, Boles said.

Image courtesy of Jim Allen/FreightWaves

Train length

Democrat subcommittee members expressed concern over the length of some trains because they can block rail crossings.

Batory said longer trains can run from 7,000 feet to 11,000 feet, although train lengths go as much as 15,000 feet to 16,000 feet.

“There is no limit on the regulatory side” of how long trains can be, Batory said. “However, the railroads are aware of what physical plant they need to accommodate.”

Batory said the FRA needs factual data on blocked crossings, and as a result, is seeking approval to create two online portals, one for the general public and one for law enforcement, that will allow users to submit information on blocked crossings. The FRA has also sent a letter to the short lines and the Class I railroads asking them to have a heightened awareness of blocked crossings.

That request for information is available here.

“If no one reports it, you don’t have knowledge of what’s going on,” Batory said.

Association of American Railroads (AAR) president Ian Jefferies said U.S. trains averaged at about 6,000 feet.

Train crew size

Democrat subcommittee members also pressed Batory over why the FRA decided on May 23 to rescind its notice of proposed rulemaking on train crew size.

Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-District of Columbia) said the FRA even referenced previous studies that stated the benefits of having additional train crew members.

But Batory insisted that there isn’t data that confirms a necessity of crew train crew sizes of two or more members. He said data has pointed to a decline in accidents over the decades even while train crew size declined from five to seven workers to two to three.

“There are no facts that exist out there that substantiate oversight,” Batory said.

Yet Previsich said longer trains create a situation where the railroads might need more than one person running a train.

“It’s unreasonable and unworkable to suggest that we’re not going to block crossings, that breakdowns and occurrences are never going to happen, and if they do, then either one person or autonomy can handle the situation out there,” Previsich said.

AI in the rail industry

Batory said the railroads shouldn’t be burdened by regulations as it develops technologies that uses artificial intelligence (AI).

“This is all developmental at this time. We need fact so we can know what and what not to regulate,” Batory said.

The railroad industry is developing and deploying technology that aids in track and locomotive inspection and continuous rail monitoring. The industry has been getting an enormous amount of data and is using predictive analytics to identify problems before they become problems, Jefferies said.

“If there are new, more sensitive, more safety-advancing methodologies of achieving regulatory mandates, those should be encouraged. The railroads should be given the opportunity to demonstrate those,” Jefferies said.

But Pierce said that every other transportation mode has oversight because “they’re so safety critical.” He also noted that the FRA’s position on the government’s involvement in technology and train crew size was buried in the May announcement on train crew size.

The FRA in May said, “There are no specific statutes or regulations prohibiting a one-person train crew, nor is there a specific requirement that would prohibit autonomous technology from operating a locomotive or train in lieu of a certified locomotive engineer.”

AAR has also said that regulating train crew size discourages the rail industry from making investments in technology.

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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. Her transportation background extends to writing about automotive fuels and additives for Hart Energy Publishing and producing summaries on advanced transportation research for a federal government agency. In her spare time, she likes writing travel articles, taking photographs, and singing and dancing. She has a bachelor's degree in music and political science from Barnard College, a master's in journalism from Boston University, and a master's in musical theater from Boston Conservatory.

5 Comments

  1. Unless you are related to or close to a railroad operating employee (train crew), you have no idea the world we live in. The fatigue from inaccurate at best work times and schedules, man power utilization, and increased workload (longer/heavier trains, increased responsibilities) is beyond logical comprehension for the non railroading world. Of course you won’t ever hear the truth from execs. We are mere numbers and are managed like robots. I have yet to read an article that really digs into the reality of train crews jobs. Scratching the surface at best. The last employee survey at UP had more than half say they would not recommend employment at Union Pacific to anybody. That should tell you something. But most are too deep with bills and railroad retirement to leave. It’s not the physical job that’s bad. It’s everything else. Everything. And then to see them basically buy out the FRA. What moral?

    1. amen brother im a conductor in Cheyenne Wy and thats what they really need to interview train crew members or even better ourwives and children that we hardly get to be with or talk to the onesthat divorced the train crew member because they couldn’t handle the furloughs bumps or crazy schedules if you wannacall it a schedule

  2. I agree..that committee should interview class 1 rail crews. The issues of line ups and fatigue are NEVER addressed in reality. The computer says you are rested..end of story. I am a BNSF engineer..I have never had training on how to operate a 39,000 ton 16,000 ft. double coal train..you just take your call and hope for the best!! It is nice that some of the issues were talked about in the hearing But I really don’t think union leaders are able to tell the real story.

  3. I think the railroad companies had ought to rethink the PSR and maybe think about employee retention because I have never heard of anyone standing in line for what I think is one of the worst Jobs ever I am an OTR truck driver and I am gone a lot and the conditions out here are crappy at best no way I am going that far away from my family depending on someone else to get me home safe again at some point in the mix of things you just have to stop and decide what is more important a paycheck that might make your family a little more comfortable or just enjoy what you have while being part of your family.

    1. You can’t imagine what this is like if you are telling people to turn away from their job and “just be with their family”. These workers invest their LIVES into working at a job like this. They take out tons for our retirement. You are only vested after you work for 5 years. So, these men who are working their brains out for 5 years+ (otherwise the massive amounts of money you put into retirement are gone) on a schedule that doesn’t exist, doing a job that requires a skillset that no other job requires, and you think they will just leave?? In some areas, this is one of the higher paying jobs. The insurance you get when working this job covers all dependents. So, you think that these workers are all going to leave because its hard?? My father, grandfather, husband and father in law are or were all railroaders. I have lived and breathed this since I can remember. It is a life that takes away your ability to work another job. It isn’t like working a night shift job THERE IS NO SCHEDULE. When people retire from this job they either thrive because they are finally getting regular sleep or they die because they can’t deal with a regular schedule. Don’t demean another transportation job because you don’t understand it, just like you wouldn’t want someone to assume things about your job but get them wrong.

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