Bringing Railroads Under Public Ownership
UE or the United Electrical, Radio & Machine Workers of America union’s role in railroading is the transportation of train crews. It has a membership of approximately 2,000. Its Executive Board recently issued a statement concerning costs and the plight of labor.
And the issues? Pricing issues within the transportation of goods across the US. Typically, these costs are passed along in the form of shortages and/or higher prices. The second issue is calling attention to the plight of railroad workers as caused by precision scheduled railroading (PSR).
PSR attempts to combine the best elements of two opposing operating plan strategies. Those issues being the holding of a train for tonnage and moving a train in a timely manner to adhere to a schedule. The conflict being freight being available to meet the train schedule.
Instead of running single purpose trains like you might see in moving containers from the West Coast to Detroit. The industry has switched to include intermodal, merchandise, and bulk commodity trains, rather than a singular commodity trains. Doing so results in moving more freight cars in fewer and longer trains. It also contributes to maintaining a specific schedule which customers require on both ends.
Where this plays out is with the crews (labor) manning the trains. Crews that are or were on (in one instance so far) call to man a train ready to go within a certain period of time. Crews must report if called in regardless of time off, etc. It gives the scheduling and departure timing of trains greater flexibility.
Longer trains, mixed loads, and flexible Labor increases profitability.
Railroads Must Be Brought Under Public Ownership, UE (ueunion.org)
Why Do So?
Railroads are a crucial part of our nation’s infrastructure. Nearly every sector of our economy depends on goods shipped by the railroads. The railroads haul forty percent of all long-distance freight in the U.S. as measured by ton-miles. A third of all exports travel by rail. Furthermore, the greater fuel efficiency of using rail to move both people and freight means moving more of our transportation onto the railroads will be necessary to address the existential threat of climate change.
Yet the private owners of our nation’s Class 1 railroads have shown themselves incapable of facing the issues. That of the challenge of the climate crisis, dealing fairly with their own workers, or meeting the basic needs of their customers. Railroad companies claiming to be in the business of moving freight are merely in the business of using their monopoly control over the nation’s rail infrastructure. Control to squeeze as much profit as possible from customers and workers at the behest of their Wall Street shareholders.
What We Want
Therefore, we demand that Congress immediately begin a process of bringing our nation’s railroads under public ownership. Public ownership of part or all of their rail systems has allowed many other countries to create rail systems that can move people and goods quickly, affordably, and in an environmentally sound way. With public ownership, governments can take the long view and make crucial infrastructure investments and also prevent price-gouging.
Railroads are like utilities and are “natural monopolies.” The consolidation of the Class 1 railroads in the U.S. into five massive companies over the past several decades has made it clear that there is no “free market” in rail transportation. With most customers having no other choice, and no central authority mandating long-term planning, each individual railroad company has little incentive to make investments in infrastructure and every temptation to take as much of their income as possible as profits. Even Martin Oberman, chair of the Surface Transportation Board, the federal agency that regulates rail, has called the railroads “monopolists” who are cutting services and raising prices because “that’s the easiest way for them to get rich.”
In their endless thirst for profit, the railroads have implemented a system called “precision scheduled railroading,” which simply means operating with as few staff as possible — speed-up by another name. Shippers have been complaining about the resulting poor service for years, and during the pandemic our entire economy paid the price with snarled supply lines leading to shortages and price hikes. The railroads do not even seem interested in expanding their share of the freight market, instead seeking to extract more and more short-term profit out of customers for whom rail is the only feasible way to ship their products.
The effect on railroad workers has been even more severe. In order to implement precision scheduled railroading, the companies have imposed draconian attendance policies which make it virtually impossible for railroad workers to take any time off, even for medical reasons. This intolerable state of affairs almost led to a railroad strike at the end of last year, until President Biden and Congress — clearly willing to intervene in the “market” when workers threaten to withdraw their labor — imposed a contract on the workers that did not even contain the workers’ bottom-line demand of adequate sick leave.
It is not only shippers and railroad workers who suffer from railroad company greed, but communities which have the misfortune of being located near tracks and rail yards. Every year, motorists are killed at railroad intersections in need of safety upgrades. To which the railroads could easily afford but refuse to fix. Idling and slow-moving trains can block access to neighborhoods near tracks for the better part of an hour. An inconvenience turning deadly if emergency responders are blocked from being able to get to those in need. Thanks to railroads’ Congressional special legal status, states and municipalities can not regulate this problem. Congress has so far refused to do so, and the problem is getting worse as precision scheduled railroading has led to longer and longer trains.
Communities near rail yards, which are primarily working-class communities and communities of color, suffer from heightened rates of cancer, asthma and other health problems due to the exhaust pumped into their air by diesel locomotives. While the Environmental Protection Agency has regulated locomotive emissions since the 1990s through a “tier” system which has ratcheted down the pollution from newly-constructed and rebuilt locomotives, far too many old and dirty locomotives are still in use. In 2019 almost two-thirds of the over 24,000 locomotives owned by Class 1 railroads were built prior to 2001, and if not remanufactured are only required to meet the inadequate emissions standards of Tiers 0 or 1.
What UE Did
In 2021, UE launched our Green Locomotive Project, which aims to encourage the railroads to upgrade their locomotive stock to cleaner and more efficient Tier 4 locomotives, and to adopt zero-emissions technology for use in rail yards. Although the legislation our allies introduced in Congress would have provided generous financial incentives for the railroads to adopt this green technology, they opposed us every step of the way.
Addressing the threat of climate change will require not only that the railroads upgrade their locomotive stock, but that more of our nation’s freight be moved onto the railroads — which, even with their current locomotive stock, have a much lower carbon footprint than other modes of transportation. The Biden administration has recognized this in The U.S. National Blueprint for Transportation Decarbonization, released earlier this month. But what shipper currently using other methods of transportation would choose to switch their business to an industry which holds its own customers in such contempt? Put simply, the railroads’ “business model” is a direct threat to our ability to leave a livable planet for our children.
The nation can no longer afford private ownership of the railroads. Its general welfare demands railroads be a part of the public ownership.
Are railroads to blame for the rail strike threat? Angry Bear