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US rail headcount rises on monthly basis

Rail employment has been trending lower over the last five years

U.S. Class I rail headcount rose between July and August. (Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves)

U.S. Class I rail employment levels rose between July and August on higher rail volumes. However, headcount totals are still significantly below year-ago levels.

Ths U.S. operations of the Class I railroads employed 117,764 people in mid-August, up 0.46% from July but down by nearly 15.5% from August 2019, according to data provided to the Surface Transportation Board (STB) by the Class I railroads. 

The headcount increase between July and August comes as U.S. rail traffic has been rising steadily since the COVID-19 pandemic slashed rail volumes in April and May. Indeed, U.S. intermodal volumes in August were at their highest since October 2018, totaling 1.12 million intermodal containers and trailers, according to the Association of American Railroads.

However, on a year-over-year basis, all six job categories included in the headcount survey declined in August amid the deployment of precision scheduled railroading (PSR), an operational model that seeks to streamline operations. 

Indeed, Union Pacific (NYSE: UNP) attributed its decision to layoff employees across its 23-state system to operational changes brought about by PSR. 

Declining traffic for coal carloads and frac sand carloads may have also contributed to lower carload volumes compared with recent years.

A comparison of U.S. coal carloads (in green; RTOCO.USA) and total U.S. carloads (in blue; RTOTC.USA) over the past year. (SONAR)

The biggest year-over-year percentage declines went to maintenance-of-way employees and train and engine (T&E) employees. Both categories fell by over 20%. Headcount for the maintenance-of-way and the T&E categories fell by 22.% and 20.9%, respectively, to 19,165 and 46,253. 

However, the month-to-month percentage changes of those two categories were more subdued. Between July and August, the maintenance-of-way employee category fell by nearly 2%, but the T&E category rose by 3.3%. 

The T&E category tends to be more sensitive to market demand for rail service, and it can rise and fall depending on network capacity needs.

Federal data elsewhere reflects the decline in overall rail employment. Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reveals a five-year decline in overall U.S. rail employment.

U.S. passenger and freight rail employment over the last five years on a seasonally adjusted basis (EMPS.RAIL). The figures are from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (SONAR)

Click here for more FreightWaves articles by Joanna Marsh.

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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.