The crucial U.S. railway system is a mess, and only getting messier, according to an in-depth report from Wired. Skeleton crews, shaky technology and a focus on quarterly profits rather than long term investment are pushing the nation’s crucial rail freight system to its limit.
After two years of empty shelves and cars stacking up in parking lots left unfinished by a snagged supply chain, Americans have been looking forward to a long stretch of consumer normalcy. But the worst may yet be on the horizon. Wired starts with a story of a huge factory farm nearly having to euthanize millions of chickens before they resorted to cannibalism due to feed not making it to the farm. It only gets worse from there, according to Wired:
Since early this year, companies across numerous industries that ship goods via rail have issued increasingly stark warnings that the US freight system is in a state of crisis—complaining of weeks-long waits for trains, backed up facilities, clogged ports, and suspended business.
In April, the STB held hearings on the meltdown, where representatives from sectors including agriculture, energy, and chemicals joined trade unions to complain of poor service and working conditions. STB data says railroads cut their workforce by 45,000, or 29 percent, over the past six years, with pandemic furloughs pushing staffing levels past a tipping point. By late May, only 67 percent of trains arrived within 24 hours of their scheduled time, down from 85 percent pre-pandemic, according to data submitted to the STB by the four largest US freight railroads.
Worse, the US freight rail system is now poised on the brink of total paralysis because of a contract dispute between 115,000 rail workers and their employers. Negotiations have dragged on since the last contract expired in 2019, during which time rail workers have not had a raise. Under the Railway Labor Act, federal government mediators try to prevent railroad work stoppages, in this case to no avail. On August 16, a three-member presidential emergency board appointed by President Biden issued recommendations for the basis of a new contract. If the sides don’t reach agreement by September 15, rail workers can strike—a scenario that Rick Paterson, a rail analyst at the investment firm Loop Capital Markets who testified during the STB hearings, calls “economic WMD.”
Workers are currently overworked due to deep staffing cuts and underpaid because due to three years of meandering contract negotiations, leading to massive turnover in what used to be a lifelong gig. Some workers Wired spoke to described working 16 hour days back-to-back. Burnout is a risk in any industry, but in railroad work exhaustion can lead to dangerous mistakes and a lack of critical maintenance on safety systems:
While the overtime isn’t mandatory, if a worker declines, she says, managers threaten to cut their position. “You do what you have to do to protect the job.”
In addition to the personal toll they suffer, some workers say the leaner operating model has damaged railroad infrastructure, harming the system’s performance. A surfacing crew foreman for BNSF, who requested anonymity because he’s not authorized to speak to the media, said that crews used to proactively maintain tracks to keep trains running smoothly, through a process called tamping. Now workers wait for something to break before attending to it. “We’re completely reactionary,” the foreman says, a shift he says sometimes forces trains to run more slowly over certain portions of track, or stop entirely. BNSF says it proactively maintains its tracks using a variety of technologies, including sensors on trains, cameras, lasers, radar, and machine vision.
This isn’t the first indication that a lack of workers and a focus on profits has ravaged this essential industry. Back in January, Union Pacific blamed criminal reforms in California for a spate of shocking package thefts from its trains. It turns out, the railroad had laid off thousands of workers — some members of its private police force — during the lull in the pandemic. Two months later, the thefts began. Union Pacific said it would use technology to protect its trains, replacing railroad cops with cameras and drones, but replacing people with technology is part of the problem, and it’s not just the safety of packages at risk. From Wired:
Unions have also disputed how railroads have used new congressionally-mandated automated emergency braking systems to justify plans to remove conductors from trains, which would leave the engineer the sole human in charge of up to 3 miles of rail cars moving at up to 70 miles an hour. While the new braking system automatically stops a train if it blows through a signal, rail unions argue that it is not a replacement for a second set of hands and eyes on a lengthy vehicle that sometimes carries hazardous material.
The unions often point to a 2013 rail disaster in Quebec in which a lone engineer failed to properly secure a train before stepping off, and it rolled down a hill, killing 47 people and destroying most of a downtown. Afterwards, Canada’s government passed a law mandating two-person crews; last month, the US Federal Railroad Administration proposed setting its own rule to do the same, which the railroads association opposes.
That’s not even getting into the economic and environmental costs when companies turn to the train alternative of long-haul trucking (which also has struggled to right itself after COVID-19). This freight shipping mess could even affect the nation’s ability to build and ship semiconductors, leading to more supply chain issues and boosting the cost (and draining the supply) of things like new cars and computers.
Wired does some great reporting, and this story is no exception. Read the whole thing here.