When Doing More with Less Poses a Threat

By Dennis R. Pierce, BLET National President

(BLET Editor’s Note: The following message from BLET National President Dennis R. Pierce has been excerpted from the April/May 2019 issue of the Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen News.)

INDEPENDNENCE, Ohio, June 13 — In my most recent President’s Message I wrote about the Precision Scheduled Railroading (PSR) phenomenon in the railroad industry, and how PSR focuses on “asset maximization” in an effort to sharply drive down operating ratio, which is the percentage of railroad revenue spent on operating costs.

This focus on operating ratio suggests that railroads are not very efficient. Data published by the Association of American Railroads (AAR) show otherwise.

Between 1980 and 2016, traffic density tripled, from 5.58 million ton-miles per mile of road to 16.99. And, today, railroads can move one ton of freight 479 miles on one gallon of fuel, which is double the fuel efficiency in 1980.

AAR also acknowledges that productivity gains by locomotive engineers and trainmen over the past four decades are similarly dramatic:

“From 1980 through 2017, rail employee productivity (measured by ton-miles per employee) rose 467 percent; locomotive productivity (measured by ton-miles per locomotive) rose 93 percent; and average freight carried per train rose 63 percent. The most commonly used broad measure of rail-industry productivity — ton-miles per constant-dollar operating expense — was 159 percent higher in 2017 than in 1980.”

We all know that efficiency and productivity have continued to soar in more recent years. Two of the most obvious changes in productivity are the ever-increasing use of Distributed Power (DP) locomotive consists as well as the operation of longer and longer trains. 

When I testified before Presidential Emergency Board No. 243 in October of 2011, I demonstrated the productivity of BLET members by showing the Board’s members a video of a train operated from Dallas, Tex., to Long Beach, Calif. by Union Pacific in January 2010. This train consisted of 9 locomotives and 294 cars, and measured 18,000 feet in length, nearly 3½ miles long.

The make-up of the train was as follows: 3 locomotives, followed by 98 cars, followed by two more locomotives, followed by another 98 cars, followed by another two locomotives, followed by a third group of 98 cars, with two additional locomotives bringing up the rear. This basically was three trains coupled together — with a pair of helpers on the hind end — and a single locomotive engineer was charged with the responsibility of controlling and operating this behemoth. As a credit to the engineer’s professionalism, the train arrived safely at its destination.

And in past months, both UP and BNSF have begun combining two loaded coal trains and operating them as a single train on multiple routes across the country. Again, thanks to the experience and professionalism of the involved train crews these trains arrived safely.

As a result of these changes, much of the increase in productivity to which the AAR points is the result of locomotive engineers and trainmen doing more work than one person did in earlier years.

That is where the history of improved productivity and its relationship to working class Americans starts to change. For more than 30 years after World War II, increases in productivity led to parallel increases in median wages. Strong unions fighting for and winning a fair share of increases in productivity by union members is what built and sustained the American Middle Class during this period.

But by the late 1970s, union concentration in America was in serious decline. In 1981, then-President Reagan declared open season on unions by decimating the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization. This anti-worker attack was accompanied by an ever-increasing tilt in favor of Corporate America by Congress.

As a result, median U.S. wages, adjusted for inflation, have been stagnant for the past 40 years. Productivity has continued to increase, but most of the new wealth generated by workers’ increased productivity was retained by the corporations.

Although locomotive engineers, trainmen and all other railroad workers fared much better than many other Americans over the years due to their Union contracts, railroads routinely dismiss our increased productivity when it comes to payday. 

This fall we will undertake another round of national bargaining. Unfortunately, we begin in a climate that is openly hostile to working men and women, and to the unions that represent them. As we approach negotiations, railroads continue to be highly profitable, in large part due to operational changes, many of which are at the expense of the workforce. At the same time, railroads routinely assert that they need even more relief to compete with the trucking industry.

All the while the railroads give little if any credit whatsoever to their workers for the increased productivity that they freely concede has occurred. Instead, the carriers claim, it’s all due to the technology, as if these 2 and 3 mile long trains ran themselves.

In fact, the AAR figures I quoted above were included in comments the Association filed with the U.S. Department of Transportation concerning automation in the transportation industry. Once again, the carriers sought to create a platform to advocate eliminating another crew member. This time the so-called threat is driverless trucks, as if the cost of a single crew operating a 100-car double stack train equated to the number of truck drivers that would be needed to carry the same number of trailers. And one carrier went so far as to identify fully-automated train operations as a goal.

In 1954, United Auto Workers President Walter Reuther toured the Ford Motor plant in Cleveland. A company official pointed out some new automatically controlled machines and asked Reuther “How are you going to collect union dues from these guys?” Reuther replied, “How are you going to get them to buy Fords?”

Our industry and our Nation face the same potential problem Brother Reuther identified 65 years ago; the pursuit of new technology threatens jobs in the drive to improve productivity. Even more important is the impact that additional crew size reductions are certain to have on the safety of railroads employees and the general public.

Making our struggle even tougher, on May 24 the Federal Railroad Administration took sides with the carriers, announcing that it would withdraw a proposed rule requiring two-person crews on certain freight and passenger trains. FRA went a step further by attempting to preempt state laws that mandate a minimum crew size, even though there is no governing federal regulation. This was in spite of the fact that during the public comment period for the proposed regulation, the FRA received 1,545 written statements in support of train crew requirements, while just 39 comments opposed crew size regulation.

Our greatest challenge is that the rail industry seems hell-bent on risking public safety for a few dollars more at the expense of already highly productive, highly trained and highly professional train crews. Trains so long that long standing technology such as two way telemetry is rendered inoperable is a risk that railroads are willing to take, but this profit driven operation puts our lives, and the safety of the general public, at risk. Whether it be trains so long that they challenge a safe operation, or additional attempts to reduce below a two-person crew, we must have a Federal Railroad Administration that will do its job and regulate the safety of the operation. Railroads have long fought all attempts to be regulated, but history makes it clear that safety regulations have made the railroad workplace safer. Profit-driven railroads won’t always do that on their own.

All of this means that we must unite in our fight to protect a safe workplace, and that must include us casting our votes for politicians that actually care about workplace safety. The politicians at the State level brave enough to pass the State crew size laws that FRA is now demeaning must be on that list. Those U.S. Representatives in Congress supporting our Federal Safe Freight Act (H.R. 1748) must also have our support when it comes time to cast our votes. We have just been reminded of the power the Federal Government has over our workplace; we deserve a Federal Government that works for us working class Americans, not just for corporate America. 

Thursday, June 13, 2019
bentley@ble-t.org