In the first hours of Thursday morning, major US freight railroad companies reached a tentative agreement with unions, narrowly averting a nationwide rail shutdown significantly less than 24 hours before a strike deadline. A work stoppage could have heaped devastating consequences on the nations economy and offer chain, nearly 30 percent which depends on rail. A good near miss had some impact. Long-distance Amtrak passenger services, designed to use freight tracks, and hazardous materials shipments are now restored after railroads suspended them to avoid people or cargo becoming stranded by way of a strike.
The tentative agreement, to be voted on by union members, came through talks brokered by the Biden administration. It scrambled this week in order to avoid a shutdown that could have caused major disruption and worsened inflation by restricting the way to obtain crucial goods and driving up shipping costs. Rail unions and the railroad industry association released statements Thursday welcoming the offer. But freight rail service has been unreliable since a long time before this weeks standoff, and trade groups representing rail customers say much work remains to revive it to acceptable levels.
Just two-thirds of trains were arriving within 24 hours of these scheduled time this spring, down from 85 percent pre-pandemic, forcing rail customers to suspend business orgrimlyconsider euthanizing their starving chickens. Scott Jensen, a spokesperson for the American Chemistry Council, whose members be determined by rail to ship chemicals, called the most recent shutdown threat another ugly chapter in this long saga of freight rail issues.
Although Thursdays agreement was lauded by companies influenced by rail freight, the ACC, the National Grain and Feed Association, along with other trade groups also argue that further reforms to the rail industry are essential. Competition has dwindled as service concentrated among a small number of big railroads, which slashed their combined workforce by 29 percent in the last six years. Rail customers have asked lawmakers and rail regulators to intervene. Suggestions include federal minimum service standards, including penalties for leaving loaded cars sitting in rail yards for long stretches, and a rule that could allow customers to go cargo to some other company at certain interchanges, to work round the proven fact that many customers are captive to an individual carrier.
Major US freight railroads made deep staff cuts recently within an attempt to implement a leaner, more profitable operating model called Precision Scheduled Railroading. Profits have indeed soaredtwo of the biggest freight carriers, Union Pacific and BNSF, owned by Warren Buffett, broke records this past year. But after many workers didn’t go back to the rail industry after pandemic furloughs, a staffing shortage tipped the network into crisis. At federal hearings this spring, rail customers complained about suffering their worst ever service levels from the network that were stripped of its resiliency.
Many freight rail jobs have always involved erratic schedules and long stretches abroad, but workers complained that the leaner operations saddled them with still longer hours, higher injury rates, and less predictable schedules. Many workers received no sick leave and were penalized when planning on taking time off beyond their vacation time, which averaged three weeks per year, or holiday and personal time, which reached 14 days per year for probably the most senior employees.