The truckers’ protests at the U.S.-Canadian border began over COVID-19 vaccine mandates: Canadian workers needed to be vaccinated crossing into the United States and vice versa.
North American freight rail operations also cross the border, but there hasn’t been the same level of dissent among rail workers. The rail unions and some of the Class I railroads did go to court over rail companies’ implementation of the vaccine mandate for federal contractors — a mandate that has since been stalled by the courts — but the industry hasn’t been concerned about disruptions at the border in the way that the trucking industry has.
That’s because the freight railroads handle cross-border operations differently. The unions of all three countries — Canada, the U.S. and Mexico — define how workers operate at the borders. When freight crosses the border and moves to another country, rail workers from that country take over.
Pre-COVID, the U.S. freight rail industry was lobbying the government to extend the area where Mexican rail workers are allowed to work in the U.S., arguing that it would improve the operational efficiency of railroads that regularly cross the U.S.-Mexico border, such as Kansas City Southern and Union Pacific (NYSE: UNP).
“It’s really an apples-and-oranges situation when you talk about truck and rail when it comes to cross-border movements,” said Todd Tranausky, a rail and intermodal expert with consultancy firm FTR Transportation Intelligence. “With a truck, the driver himself needs to cross the border with the freight. Whereas with rail, the freight crosses the border, which is a customs clearance process but in most cases the crews either do not — or do not do so past a preestablished zone.
“As an example, there are crew change points very close to the Canadian border and different unions representing those employees in the U.S. and Canada. Coming in from Mexico, the crews only work to the midpoint of the International Bridge at Laredo and then walk back to their home country so they are never actually entering the other country. Because the operating crews don’t enter the other country in the same way, it really shouldn’t be an issue for rail,” Tranausky said.
For their part, the U.S.-based Association of American Railroads and the Canadian-based Railway Association of Canada said that U.S. rail workers entering Canada must be vaccinated in compliance with Canada’s vaccination mandate while Canadian rail workers must comply with any pertinent U.S. vaccine mandates.