In June, unions representing a wide range of crafts of railroad workers testified before the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee on the state of the rail workforce and worker safety in the industry. Without fail, each labor witness spoke to safety issues that freight carriers and the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) are at best choosing to ignore, and at worst actively exacerbating.
Not long after, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a report that spoke to one of these issues, and what railroad workers have known all along — that freight trains are getting longer and longer with limited oversight, safety standards, or concern for anything but turning a buck.
GAO’s report found that average train length has increased by approximately 25 percent since 2008. Many carriers are operating trains with average lengths well over a mile — and in the most extreme cases, upwards of three miles. To put that in context, freight rail carriers could start holding 5K foot races with the start and finish line at either end of a single train. As these trains get longer and carry more goods, including those that are flammable or even explosive, neither carriers nor the FRA have taken sufficient action to ensure that these unprecedented operations are safe.
To make matters worse, the FRA recently announced it would not move forward on a 2016 proposed rule requiring two crewmembers on these massive trains. It also used the occasion to prohibit states from issuing their own crew size mandates. It defies logic that the FRA would dump these protections when having more than one worker on a train is needed now more than ever. In our hypothetical “Unsafe Freight Train 5K,” in the event of an emergency, it would take a single crewmember nearly 13 minutes to get from one end of the train to the other—if he was sprinting at world record pace.
The move to longer trains and single crewmembers are not one-offs or isolated moves by freight carriers. Instead, they are part a concerted effort by rail CEO’s to cut costs and satisfy Wall Street investors and hedge fund managers — regardless of safety ramifications or service interruptions. They’ve even given their plan a corporate-speak name — Precision Scheduled Railroading — a business model adopted that promises greater efficiencies, but in reality is about cutting jobs, reducing critical safety inspections, and forcing workers to do more with less.
Recently, the International Association of Machinists conducted an internal survey on the impact of PSR and found an overworked workforce performing double or triple their work and an increasing number of safety violations going unaddressed. The survey’s reoccurring sentiment was that “the current culture…is one of production first, safety last. It isn’t just the safety of employees at stake; it is also the safety of communities our trains move through.” After hearing from rail labor leaders on the toll this misguided scheme is taking, House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Peter DeFazio got it right: our freight rail system has fallen into the hands of “the jackals on Wall Street”.
What the GAO found is of no surprise to rail workers. Railroads are neglecting safety in search of profit, and they seem to have a willing partner in the Federal Railroad Administration. If we intend to have a safe freight rail network that supports commerce and good jobs, it is incumbent on Congress and the FRA to take action and change course.