Freight train workers are fed up.
One conductor said he nearly missed his wife’s funeral because he couldn’t get time off. An engineer said he was put on a disciplinary path after having to stay home to fix a broken water heater. Other freight train workers blamed the industry’s on-call, 24/7 scheduling requirements for health problems and divorces — a lifestyle they said had turned one of the best-paying blue-collar jobs in the country into one marred by misery and neglect.
After years of cutbacks and service tumult, the country’s freight rail workers are pushing to strike, which could further clog supply chain networks and amp up political heat on a White House already under the microscope for economic woes. The Biden administration said Friday it will appoint a three-person commission to stave off what would be the first strike by freight rail workers in 30 years. Rail companies say that they are offering salary increases to help keep their workers among the highest paid and working on making their systems more consistent.
NBC News talked to more than 10 current and former workers about the conditions on the rails. All of the current workers said they supported a stoppage.
“The company keeps making working conditions worse,” said a conductor with Union Pacific in the Midwest, who asked that his name be withheld for fear of reprisal. “They’re making billions per quarter and they’re only paying those dividends out to shareholders, when it’s the workers who are moving freight and making sure this country keeps the supply chain moving.”
The presidential commission will formally pause the bitter negotiations between workers, their unions and the companies and prevent workers from striking until September. The White House’s hand was forced after the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen union, which is leading a coalition of 10 rail unions in negotiations, voted last Tuesday by more than 99 percent, about 11,000 votes, to authorize a strike.
The movement caps years of tensions on the freight rails that reached a peak during the pandemic. Workers, who support a system that moves some 20 billion tons of goods a year, roughly 40 percent of long distance goods transported in the U.S., complain that the rail companies are enhancing their profits by cutting labor costs to the bone, and raising prices, even as service has suffered.
The yearslong implementation of a technological system called “precision scheduled railroading” has allowed railroads to run longer trains with less workers — helping drive handsome profits in recent years.
“These are the employees that worked everyday during a pandemic and helped these folks make record profits,” said Dennis Pierce, the president of the engineers and trainmen union. “To go three years without a raise when inflation is running at 8 to 10 percent right now, and then force them to work more, because you can’t hire. The employees are angry. It’s a level of frustration amongst the workforce unlike any I have seen in the 45 years I’ve worked at the railroad.”
Government data shows increased strain on the railroads. Fatalities per 100,000 miles grew 60% from 2017 to 2021, according to the Federal Railroad Administration, although industry experts caution that those numbers represent more about the public — people who ignore or miss signs to avoid crossing trains — than the rails.
Accidents and incidents per 100,000 miles rose by 9.4% during that same time period.
The Association of American Railroads, the industry group representing the companies, said safety has been improving on the railroads for years, saying that the employee injury rate has dropped 48 percent since 2000.
Total train accidents declined 32 percent during that time period.
More with less
The current and recent freight rail workers, who included conductors, engineers, yardmasters and dispatchers, said in interviews that challenging working conditions have deteriorated even further during the pandemic.
They said that’s because companies like BNSF, one of the nation’s largest rail companies, instituted rigid scheduling requirements that leave workers on-call nearly 24/7 every day of the year, as labor shortages have challenged the industry. And their wages haven’t gone up for three years even as inflation has spiked, workers and union officials said.
A spokesman for BNSF said the scheduling policy, known internally as “Hi-Viz,” was created to improve consistency, service and reliability for its crews and customers. It said that the company has been making some tweaks to the system to improve it, and that attendance-related discipline has been decreasing.
“BNSF team members drive our success and we couldn’t deliver the nation’s goods without them,” the BNSF spokesman, Ben Wilemon, said in a statement. “We are committed to adapting together to meet today’s competitive freight environment.”
But several workers interviewed say the conditions are taking a toll on their health. A locomotive engineer at BNSF in Nebraska said his doctor had warned him recently that his health problems from working a round-the-clock schedule were mounting. He advised the engineer to take medical leave, find a new job or expect his problems with drinking, weight gain and sleeplessness to get worse.
In total, four workers described talking to their doctors about similar issues. One worker said the divorce he was in the middle of was due in part to stress from the industry’s scheduling.
“They’re asking everybody to do more with less,” said the engineer in Nebraska, who asked that his name be withheld for fear of reprisal from his employer. The engineer said he was penalized on the company’s point system after missing work to deal with a busted water heater this year, pushing him further down the path to potential discipline.
BNSF said in a statement that it was unable to comment on individual employees’ cases, but that it was “committed to working with employees in cases of extenuating circumstances.”
Freight rail jobs are a vestige of the unionized middle class and historically have been one of the top industries by pay for workers without a college degree. A high percentage of the workforce is male, and it also draws heavily from former members of the military.
The National Railway Labor Conference, the consortium of companies bargaining with workers, pointed to the industry’s wages, saying that the average annual compensation package for railroad employees, including wages and benefits, is about $130,000, and included generous health care and the potential for a pension after years of service.
The mean salary for railroad conductors in the transportation industry is about $67,660, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. For engineers, who staff the trains along with conductors, the mean salary is $73,490.
Supply chain ‘devastation’
The last major freight rail strike was in April 1991, which raised similar fears of an economic fallout. The strike lasted less than 24 hours, after Congress passed legislation forcing workers back on the job while mediators worked to end the dispute.
But with inflation on the march after the pandemic, the U.S. economy is in an even more perilous place now.
“It would be devastating,” Frank Wilner, a railroad economist and author who worked for more than 50 years in the industry, said of a strike. “Even a 24-hour shutdown could take a week or more for railroads to resume normal operations. You would have serious backlogs in the supply chain that’s already quite fragile. Ports would see more backups. Warehouses would suffer and national defense would be threatened.”
Former rail worker Tom Sharkey said years of stress over the industry’s oppressive scheduling culminated with him almost missing his wife’s funeral in 2019.
Sharkey worked in Texas for BNSF, while his wife lived in Washington state and suffered from mixed connective tissue disease, an autoimmune disorder.
They struggled with the distance, and the stress of it all led to health problems for him like weight gain, nervous twitches, and depression and anxiety, Sharkey said, and he was denied family medical leave three times to take care of his wife, he said.
He was later approved when he requested leave based on his anxiety instead.
Sharkey now works as a technician in the cloud division of a major technology company. He makes about a third less than the approximately $100,000 a year he made on the rails, but he works fewer hours, is on a set schedule and says the trade-off is worth it as he tries to rebuild his career.
“I’ve been in apartments since then, trying to get back on my feet,” he said. “It’s created a hole in my life that I can’t get over.”
Longer trains, fewer workers
Some workers say the attrition in the industry has been by design, because companies are pushing to run longer trains with smaller crews.
“When I started 15 years ago, I thought a train was fairly sizable at 100 cars,” said a dispatcher with Norfolk Southern, who asked for anonymity for fear of reprisal. “And now they’re double that at 200 cars at a time, three miles worth of traffic in one train.”
Connor Spielmaker, a spokesman for Norfolk Southern, said of the nearly 370 trains it runs on an average day, the vast majority are below 12,000-feet long. (Three miles is 15,840 feet.)
Workers and experts like Wilner said rail companies are hoping to go to one-man crews as they rely more on technology. Two workers, a conductor and an engineer, currently staff most freight rail runs.
The Class 1 railroads, which include the top seven freight companies and Amtrak, have dropped roughly 45,000 workers in the last six years, about 29 percent of the workforce, according to the federal Surface Transportation Board.
The pandemic further accelerated this trend: Nonadministrative and executive staff at the top seven freight rail companies dropped by more than 11 percent, from 109,800 to 98,500, from the beginning of the pandemic through May, according to federal data compiled by NBC News.
Service has suffered, too. Several hearings on Capitol Hill in the last month have showcased loud frustrations from the industries that rely on freight rail for the movement of goods, like grain and feed manufacturers, and other goods producers.
Despite the service issues, the country’s biggest rail companies reaped huge financial rewards during the pandemic.
The two biggest freight rail companies had record profits during 2021; BNSF had a net income of nearly $6 billion, up 16 percent from 2020. Union Pacific’s net income was $6.5 billion, also up 16 percent from 2020. CSX Transportation achieved a record low operating ratio — a key measurement for the industry that gauges the share of revenue eaten by expenses, like labor — for the third quarter. Norfolk Southern Railway announced a record low operating ratio for the year.
“It’s embarrassing, in all honesty, because for years the railroads have had record profits,” the engineer from Nebraska said. “And they tried to say that yeah, our employees are the reason that we’re seeing this success. But it’s never enough for them.”
The Association of American Railroads, the industry group representing the companies, said in a statement that they were aggressively working to hire up amid the national labor shortage. New hires must go through a four to six month training, which also slows down the process.
“Railroads know service is not at the level customers expect or deserve, which is why they are taking aggressive action to put the right plans, people and equipment in place to tackle these challenges,” a spokeswoman for the association, Jessica Kahanek, said in a statement. “Railroads are pulling many levers to restore service, but none is more important today than hiring and retaining employees.”