OMAHA, Neb. — Even as railroads are operating longer and longer freight trains that sometimes stretch for miles, the companies have drastically reduced staffing levels, prompting unions to warn that moves meant to increase profits could endanger safety.
More than 22% of the jobs at railroads Union Pacific, CSX and Norfolk Southern have been eliminated since 2017, when CSX implemented a cost-cutting system called Precision Scheduled Railroading that most other U.S. railroads later copied.
The railroads acknowledge they have cut staff, lengthened trains and made other adjustments to reduce spending, but they are adamant none of the changes increase dangers. Regulators at the Federal Railroad Administration say they are tracking the changes and that the data so far does not show the new operating model is unsafe.
But unions counter that with the stakes so high any time a train derails, the new system is risky.
“Every time the wheels come off the rail, it’s kind of like buying a lottery ticket to the big disaster,” said Jason Cox with the carmen division of the Transportation Communications Union.
Precision Scheduled Railroading calls for running fewer, longer trains with a mix of freight to reduce the number of crews and locomotives needed to deliver millions of tons of goods nationwide.
Some trains now stretch longer than 2 miles. Union Pacific said the average of its maximum train length has grown more than 30% to 9,250 feet, which is 1.75 miles, since it started using the new operating model in 2018.
“Across the board, I do not see evidence of our workforce at Union Pacific being rushed, overworked or put in harm’s way,” said Lance Fritz, CEO of Union Pacific, the nation’s second-largest railroad.
CSX officials said most of the key safety measures they track like employee injuries and train accidents have improved since it started using the new operating model.
“We do not move freight at the expense of the safety of our employees or the communities where we operate,” CSX spokeswoman Cindy Schild said.
The union coalition Transportation Trades Department notes the amount of time carmen have to inspect each car in a train has been reduced by more than half — from three minutes to just 60 seconds.
“From the conductor side, we’re basically finding things that are just obvious,” said Greg Hynes, national legislative director with SMART-TD union that represents conductors.
Independent expert David Clarke, director of the University of Tennessee’s Center for Transportation Research, said the safety data is inconclusive.
“Right now I just haven’t seen anything to demonstrate that it’s definitely having a negative impact on safety,” Clarke said.