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US Class I rail headcount sinks to near decade low

Employment number lowest since January 2012

U.S. Class I rail headcount hit a low in January. (Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves)

The number of employees working for the U.S. operations of the Class I railroads in January fell to its lowest level in years, according to data received by the Surface Transportation Board.

U.S. Class I railroad operations had 113,461 employees working in their ranks in January, an 11.6% drop from January 2020 and a 3.7% decline from December. This total is the lowest since January 2012, the earliest date for which FreightWaves has data. January’s total also beat October 2020’s low of 114,960 employees.

Both year-over-year and sequential declines occurred across all six categories: professional and administrative; executives, officials and staff assistants; maintenance of way and structures; maintenance of equipment and stores; transportation (other than train and engine); and transportation (train and engine).

Employee headcount for the train and engine (T&E) category was 45,521 in January, which is 12% lower than January 2020 and 4.2% lower than December. 

The T&E category typically reflects market demand for rail service, although the deployment of precision scheduled railroading, an operating model that seeks to streamline operations, plus the COVID-19 pandemic may have impacted headcount.

January’s headcount decrease occurred as U.S. rail volumes rose 5.3% in January to 2.1 million carloads and intermodal units, according to the Association of American Railroads. Record intermodal and chemicals volumes as well as higher grain volumes boosted overall U.S. rail traffic in January, although volumes were down for coal and petroleum, among other goods.

Meanwhile, headcount among all U.S. rail transportation workers continues to be near the lows of 2020, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data graphed by FreightWaves SONAR.

Employment levels of U.S. rail transportation workers over the past year (blue: EMPN.RAIL). (FreightWaves SONAR) 

The data includes both passenger and freight rail workers.

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Related articles:

US Class I rail headcount tumbles 14% in 2020

Class I rail headcount plunges to new low in November

Intermodal, chemicals and grain boost US rail traffic in January

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.