Reported by Joanna Marsh for Freightwaves.
Longer trains, employee morale and the role of technology in freight rail operations came under at times withering scrutiny at a U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee hearing.
The hearing, convened to discuss supply chain challenges in the freight rail industry, became a forum for discussion of hot-button topics. Five witnesses at the Thursday hearing spelled out ongoing concerns of stakeholders.
Asked what problems a bipartisan House supply chain caucus should focus on, witnesses made a range of suggestions:
- Association of American Railroads President and CEO Ian Jefferies mentioned permitting reform, including streamlining the process for obtaining Clean Water Act permits.
- Chuck Baker, president and CEO of the American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association, suggested providing mechanisms to help railroads hire and retain workers, including the ability to hire back retirees while allowing them to retain their railroad retirement benefits.
- American Chemistry Council President and CEO Chris Jahn also called for permitting reform and said that in addition he would support the Surface Transportation Board’s moving forward with reciprocal switching. That involves an incumbent carrier transporting a shipper’s traffic to an interchange point where it switches the rail cars over to the competing carrier, according to the Federal Register. Jahn also supported ensuring minimum service delivery standards.
- Marc Scribner, senior transportation policy analyst for the Reason Foundation, called for letting the freight rail industry pursue technological advances and innovation, such as greater deployment of autonomous track inspection. This is especially important since other modes, such as trucking, have been able to do so.
- Greg Regan, president of the Transportation Trades Department, which is affiliated with the AFL-CIO, said in addition to focusing on improving freight rail service, Congress should promote better quality of life for railroad workers and advocate for boosting workforce levels and recruitment.
Rail stakeholders are also pushing for Congress to prevent COVID-19 pandemic-related railroad worker insurance benefits from being cut as a result of President Joe Biden declaring an end to the pandemic. The 5.7% reduction in benefits through 2030 went into effect on Tuesday. The Railroad Employee Equity and Fairness Act (REEF Act) seeks to stop that reduction.
Train lengths, rail service and quality of life draw scrutiny
Witnesses offered opinions on a number of other issues facing the industry as well, including:
“The long trains are increasingly a problem from our members’ perspective. These trains have doubled or tripled in size over time. If there is a problem on board a train and you have two people working there, one engineer [and] one conductor to identify the problem on a 3-to-4-mile-long train, you have to have someone walk the entire length to identify what that problem is … . And currently, we do not have sidings that can accommodate most of these large trains, so if there is a problem, it is going to create a backlog on the system.” — Regan
“I can’t say if there is a right length and what that is, but I can say we’re wide open to following the data. And that is something [the National Academy of Sciences] is looking at, if there is some sort of safety conduit to a certain length. [But] we have not seen it in our operations.” — Jefferies
“Somebody mentioned the Staggers Act had passed in 1980. A lot has changed since then. Back in the day, the railroads owned all the rail cars. Now, three-quarters of the rail cars are owned by the shippers. And so this is a situation where it needs to go both ways. If the railroad is late, we should have the ability to act in kind. And we think that would clean up a lot of the problems that we’re having right now.” — Jahn
“In California, for example, we’ve got a company that is only getting about two-thirds of its shipments, or less than two-thirds of its shipments. It’s competing against companies in China that bring in product to a port that has multiple railroads … . It’s hard for our members to compete globally against competition, and China does not, frankly, face the same transportation challenges that we have here domestically.” — Jahn
“There’s no question that it’s been four or five years of struggling service. [But] I’m hearing from my short lines that they’re seeing green shoots of improvements. I certainly wouldn’t dispute what Mr. Jahn is saying that some customers remain frustrated, but short lines view the rail network largely from a shipper’s perspective also, and I think we’re seeing improvements. I have no doubt that our Class I friends would do the last few years differently if they could, but I think it’s starting to get better.” — Baker
“It’s different abroad because [in the U.S.] we have vertically integrated railroads that own the infrastructure and operate over those lines. It’s not separate. And that sort of [hearkens to] the truck comparison that I made in my opening statements: Trucks are not [responsible for] infrastructure whereas in the U.S., the freight railroads are … . So I think you could see benefits on the infrastructure side, with automated train and track inspection, and also further in the future, with the automation of train operations as well … . The use of emerging aviation technologies, drones in bridge inspections and things like that, are keeping people out of harm’s way and reducing costs. These are the benefits of automation that we see in other domains and other industries.” — Scribner
Quality of life
“The cause of all the morale issues boils down to the reduction of workforce levels. I thank you for your introduction of the sick leave legislation this morning. But that also I believe is a symptom … [of] drastic reductions in workforce. We have people who are required to be on call constantly that may not have access to their granted leave that was agreed to in the contract. We got rid of over boards, which are basically redundancy within the system that allow the railroads to continue to operate when people do need to take time off for whatever reason it may be. So then, the attendance policies that were put in place essentially discouraged anyone from actually taking the leave that is available to them. These are all issues that contributed to the fight that we had last year where, let’s be honest, despite the largest wage increase in 45 years [as included in the labor contracts] … so many of the workers voted against that despite the economic benefits of that agreement.” — Regan
“I think we all recognize that railroading is a very challenging job. That’s why it’s compensated at the level it is. But … it’s not all about the money, and that’s why it’s important that we’ve made progress on creating a more scheduled work environment for some of our employees. And those agreements are starting to happen on the sick leave front. Every single Class I railroad now has a sick leave agreement in place with the majority of the unions that it operates. Not all of them. I’m counting 37 different agreements so far. And so there’s progress being made on that front . … I think, quite frankly, that Greg and I can be working together a lot more to promote the benefits of this industry. … I think we can do it in certain areas. For example, the REEF Act. We both worked together. … And that’s a good, good opportunity for expanded joint work.” — Jefferies
“We are seeing an alarming number of people leave the industry. And this is an industry where a lot of people are third-, fourth-, fifth-generation railroad workers … . We want to see this industry grow, but at a certain point, that cost benefit of a good wage and benefits was outweighed by the demands on their quality of life, their work-life balance, and people are saying, ‘It’s not worth it anymore. I’m gonna go work in another industry.’” — Regan
“The current state is not really much improved than it was last year when there was the threat of a work stoppage. I think there are some improvements being made. I think that we will start to see some quality-of-life improvements in the railroads. But I do think that at its core, we need to start hiring with a much greater frequency. And not only that, but retain workers. The net gain of workers on the railroads has really not increased much because we are seeing so many people leave the industry, and many of them are midcareer.” — Regan