Do rail job cuts raise safety concerns?

As the transportation industry has changed since the railroad boom of the late 19th century, reliance on trains as the primary means of transporting goods and people has decreased. As the rail industry has shrunk, so has its workforce.

Staffing levels on Class I railroads, the largest, declined about 28% between 2011 and 2021. At the same time, trains have become longer, often stretching 2 to 3 miles. Regulators and union leaders have said the combination is concerning in terms of safety.

Longer trains present more operational complexities, regulators warned. One industry trend, precision scheduled rail transportation, has emphasized cost-cutting measures, including job cuts and longer trains. At the same time, mechanical department employees (workers responsible for maintenance and inspections) on Class I freight railroads have been cut by 41% since 2015, the Department of Transportation told the Federal Railroad Administration in a letter. of February.

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The letter came after BNSF Railway laid off 362 mechanical department workers and urged the agency to address what they characterized as unsafe industry practices.

The head of the Federal Railroad Administration sent a letter to another of the largest railroads, Union Pacific, in February following its layoffs of maintenance workers. He accused the company of “prioritizing cost-cutting measures over ensuring safe operations, endangering the well-being of both UP workers and the public.”

Union Pacific is also embroiled in a legal battle with Anderson County and the East Texas city of Palestine over an attempt to eliminate jobs in the city despite a contract to keep them there.

The company rejected an interview request from The Dallas Morning News on demand and broader job cuts.

“We are very concerned about the reduction in the workforce,” said US Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg. The Dallas Morning News in April. “I think common sense would say that the wholesale layoff of rail workers that has taken place over the last 10 to 20 years has been correlated with stagnant and, in some cases, worsening safety outcomes.”

There are other reasons for rail workforce reductions, according to Allan Rutter, transportation practice leader at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute. The advancement of technology has moved some manual work to automation, such as using cameras and sensors to detect problems on the track and monitor cars. The freight industry has been through a crisis – compounded by a shift in energy policy – ​​that makes efforts to cut costs more urgent.

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Rail companies have defended the cuts as part of regular fluctuations in demand and have denied any link between staffing levels and safety. Zak Andersen, BNSF vice president of communications, said the February furloughs were primarily for “disorderly” employees performing major repairs rather than those responsible for minor repairs and inspections. BNSF also eliminated several hundred management positions in March.

Railroad executives and lobbyists say the railroad is safer than ever. In an email from March to NewsUnion Pacific said its goal is to be “the best in the industry in safety,” pointing to a reduction in injuries last year and nearly $2 billion earmarked for infrastructure replacement.

“Last year, there were no work-related deaths, a 15% reduction in serious injuries to employees, and a 6% reduction in serious derailments, compared to 2022,” the statement reads in part. “While safety will always be our first priority, we are committed to improving service and delivering what we sold to our customers. “Railroads are essential to the economy of Texas and the United States, and as we continue to modernize, we are constantly reviewing operations.”

A March statement from the Association of American Railroads cited a “safety-focused approach” that has reduced “the rail accident rate by 27% since 2000 and 6% since 2022” and led to a decline in deaths and injuries. of the employees.

Union groups have accused the industry of manipulating data to compare recent safety trends to an industry low and citing the absolute number of derailments rather than rates, given the trend toward fewer but more trains running. long.

The Association of American Railroads calls the claims “patently false” and emphasizes that railroads follow federal safety data reporting requirements.

“Safety data tells an unequivocal story of a safe industry. “This unfounded claim of data manipulation reflects a fundamental misunderstanding about 1. FRA reporting data and 2. suggests that railroads are not in compliance with federal statute,” the group said in an email.

The industry has rejected attempts to regulate safety. Four railroads, including Union Pacific and BNSF, asked federal appeals courts to throw out an April 2024 Federal Railroad Administration rule requiring two-person train crews in most circumstances.

The Association of American Railroads said there was “a lack of evidence connecting crew size to railroad safety.” The group has also opposed provisions of Congress’ Rail Safety Act, such as expanded manual inspections and expanded hazardous materials transportation requirements. The bill is stalled in Congress.