September 30, 2022

Railroad Workers Point to Punishing Schedules as Cause of Strike

The side effect, however, was to gradually eliminate any cushion in staffing levels.

Unlike many workers, the conductors and engineers who operate trains don’t get weekends or other consistent days off.

Instead, said Mr. Pierce, the president of the locomotive engineers union, workers go to the bottom of a list of available crews when they return home from a trip that can last days. The fewer the workers, the shorter the list, and the less time it takes for them to be summoned into action again.

“It can go on indefinitely, till they interrupt the cycle by taking paid time off, which the companies routinely reject,” Mr. Pierce said.

Major U.S. freight rail carriers began to accelerate the staffing cuts in recent years as they switched to a system known as precision scheduled railroading, or P.S.R., which focuses on scaling back excess equipment and employees and streamlining the shipping process.

The industry has said P.S.R. enables carriers to run more efficiently and provide more reliable service, while also improving profits. Freight rail customers and employees say it has resulted in deteriorating working conditions and customer service and little resilience in dealing with unforeseen circumstances, like weather emergencies. The Surface Transportation Board, a federal regulatory agency, estimates that the carriers have 30 percent fewer employees today than six years ago.

Reducing labor to match this operating model may have been sound in principle, said Mr. Paterson, the industry analyst. But he said the carriers appeared to have cut back too much to allow them to handle potential disruptions, of which the pandemic was an epic example.

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