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Railway improvements: Someone else’s job

freight train

Summertime news reports highlighted the possibility of a national rail strike.

Last-minute intervention by the Biden administration in September prevented the strike for the time being.

But it could happen again.

When? Say around Thanksgiving.

On Monday, October 10, members of the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees Division (BMWED), the nation’s third-largest rail union, rejected a proposed five-year contract that would have raised wages and provided an additional paid day off for rail workers.

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The workers rejected the proposed contract by a vote of 56 percent against to 43 percent for.

“Union leaders said they pushed for 15 paid sick days, but the proposed deal included only one,” reported Time. “Rail workers are also seeking the right to take unpaid sick days, and the deal did not address this issue, among other concerns, Union President Tony Cardwell said in a public statement.”

The vote means that the interim agreement reached in September was turned down. It doesn’t mean that there will necessarily be a strike. There is a cooling-off period until negotiations resume on November 19—the Saturday before Thanksgiving. After that point, strikes may take place.

“Railroaders are discouraged and upset with working conditions and compensation and hold their employer in low regard. Railroaders do not feel valued,” Cardwell said. “They resent the fact that management holds no regard for their quality of life, illustrated by their stubborn reluctance to provide a higher quantity of paid time off, especially for sickness.”

Workers are upset that over the past six years, major railroads have cut nearly one-third of their workforce—roughly 45,000 jobs. This forces the remaining workers to often be on call twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, according to the rail unions involved in contract discussions.

Rail strikes necessarily have national implications. If workers at a regional retail chain strike, it will affect the area. But even a regional railroad strike could and probably would affect transportation nationwide.

The railway industry is not only being hit by its employees: there is a gross dissatisfaction with service in general. According to one study cited by Time, 100 percent of executives surveyed said truck service was preferable to rail: not only is it more likely to be on time, but even when it isn’t, customers are usually given some idea of when the shipment will arrive. Railways often provide no such information.

In May, the federal Surface Transportation Board (STB) ordered four leading railroad companies—BNSF Railway Company (BNSF), CSX Transportation, Inc. (CSX), Norfolk Southern Railway (NSR), and Union Pacific Railroad (UP)—to come up with plans to correct service deficiencies.

In June, the STB issued this statement: “Unfortunately, these four carriers submitted plans that were perfunctory and lacked the level of detail that was mandated by the Board’s order.”

Railway executives appear to stash federal orders to improve service in that thick file labeled “Someone Else’s Job.”

Are freight railways going through the same upheaval that passenger rail experienced in the mid-twentieth century? Excessive government regulation is sometimes blamed for that decline, as is increased competition from automobile and air travel.

But one has the impression that a lack of creativity and enterprise among the industry’s leadership played a major role as well.  American passenger rail is now limited to Amtrak plus a few commuter lines in major metropolises such as New York and Chicago.

Railroad executives have tended to pass the blame along to stockholders, whose insistence on short-term profits, the executives contend, have hindered investments in longer-term upgrades.

But this sounds very much like an excuse.

No one is eager to amp up shipping by truck: costs are often higher (especially long-distance), and road accidents and traffic congestion would likely increase. But shippers may soon feel that they have no choice.


Richard Smoley, contributing editor for Blue Book Services, Inc., has more than 40 years of experience in magazine writing and editing, and is the former managing editor of California Farmer magazine. A graduate of Harvard and Oxford universities, he has published 12 books.