Freight Rail

…may not be as glamorous as passenger train travel, but in the US it is quite important, as people will learn if the possible rail strike actually happens.

Here are some interesting links on the railroad industry:

The potential impact of a railroad strike

The difficult work environment in rail, and the current worker shortage

A thoughtful piece by two very experienced railway executives

Are single-person train crews a good idea?

Also…if you haven’t already read it, see my review of Linda Niemann’s memoir of her time working on the old Southern Pacific. She got a PhD in English before going to work for the railroad, and her writing is excellent.  (Not that excellent writing is by any means guaranteed for PhDs in English, but this book has been compared to Melville, and I think it does compare well with ‘White Jacket’, his book about working as a crewman on an American sailing warship)

28 thoughts on “Freight Rail”

  1. My daughter and I did a Costco and grocery store run today; we tried to determine what we thought might run out in the way of grocery and household items, if this strike goes on for long.
    I’m having bad memories of how the Covidiocy blew up between one week and the next, two years ago. One week, everything was normal – we knew that things might get a little fraught, but only because we read a lot of independent news and blogs … and then, it was panic and the grocery store parking lot going all Mad Max, and the shelves swept so bare daily that they had to close after a certain time in the evening to restock, and open again in the morning.
    From 0 to Venezuela in the space of three days…

  2. I was just at the store a few minutes ago and no one had *any* idea this might be happening on Friday. So… get what you need now before the fools figure it out…

  3. Like Joe P and Sgt. Mom above we last week went on a buying spree but of a different sort. We went to all of the ag stores and bought up months of chicken, dog, cat and horse feed and supplements, shavings, and anything else that we need to operate our little farm that likely has to move by rail. Fortunately at our farm we have plenty of storage space and these are things that we will use eventually anyways. The stores were clueless as to why we were buying pallets of this stuff but they will find out quickly if this strike happens.

  4. If the Ds can spin a rail strike as pro-MAGA . . . Maybe I shouldn’t give them any ideas.

    But we’re really in new territory here. The willingness of the FJB Admin to play hardball against those who stand in their way makes me suspect that a lot of people on both sides will receive offers they can’t refuse from the Feds, to come to a settlement that makes the FJB Admin look good, if only for a while.

    What RR exec or Union rep wants to have his tax records trawled, for instance, or her family’s social media lives exposed?

  5. One of those links noted that the railroad workers essentially get no days off because they are on call all the time.

    I see a problem. I’d bet that they’re pretty fed up with this, hence their cranky intransigence and apparent lack of concern with the food supplies of the country.

    I know what to do, though- hire more workers, give the workers you already have a set schedule, and pay enough to keep them all. That won’t solve everything but it will solve this particular problem.

    This seems rather obvious to me. I think it should be rather obvious to everyone else involved, too. But the slavish devotion American business has to stock prices prevents it, I expect.

    The US is ruled by the democrat party. No matter what they may claim, the present system was set up by them. That system is such that people who work face endless taxes, corporations face roughly the same, and more recently, vast sums of operating revenue from business operations is siphoned off to buy shares back. Meanwhile, certain favored people have a nice easy living from their mailbox, courtesy of my tax dollars, or have useless but high-status jobs in the government or academia, etc.

    The democrats were the party of slavery in 1860, and they are the party of slavery now. They have created a system in which people with such important but apparently low status jobs as moving food to market are literally worked into the ground, while people who either do no work at all or have the sort of high status job that stopped being done during the pandemic are lavished with wealth and care. They’re heroes, you know. Just ask them.

    I’m on the side of the railroad workers, in case that wasn’t obvious.

  6. A shorter read is John McPhee’s ‘Uncommon Carriers’, in the chapters about “Coal Train”.
    The rail lines have been “trimming fat” to the point of loosing muscle and bone. They laid off extra crew during the Covid slowdown, and now they call them back, and -surprise- the ungrateful peons went and got jobs elsewhere. And don’t want to come back, for some reason.

  7. I don’t think the railroads carry that much you’ll find in stores except inter-modal. This will be especially true for anything fresh. Rail shipping times are just too long and uncertain for anything less than train loads of bulk commodities. Aside from panic buying, there won’t be anything to notice by Friday. This will be another supply chain situation where the shortages show up later and in unpredictable places.

    One place where the shortages will show up quickly is in the cattle feeders. Millions of cattle will eat there way through train loads (around 20,000 tons) of grain and other commodities pretty fast. The terminals I know about in the Texas Panhandle generally unload two or three trains a week each. Some of that goes to ethanol production but most goes to cattle. Speaking of ethanol, 100% of it moves by rail. The fuel terminals in DFW go through several train loads a week.

    Now that I mention it, I think I’ll be filling up my pickup tomorrow. But groceries mostly move by truck.

  8. But wait there’s more:

    The Burr-Wicker resolution would adopt the comprehensive recommendations by the Presidential Emergency Board (PEB), which Biden created to avert a strike. Those recommendations include significant wage increases retroactive to 2020.
    Burr noted it would include a 24 percent increase in pay, annual bonuses of $1,000 and additional paid leave.

    This is from a story published in “The Hill,” via instapundit just now, about the incipient railway strike.

    Railroads are backing a contract based on guidance from a White House-appointed board that calls for 24 percent raises over five years and back pay. Rail workers largely oppose the deal because it doesn’t address their concerns about unsafe working conditions, long hours and sick leave.

    From another story, same source.

    I take this as yet another example of how thoroughly broken American politics actually is. We have two gopes attaching their bad names to a scheme to force railroad workers back to to work, with no demonrat other than bernie objecting, or even having an opinion.

    That is, the dc uniparty was quite happy to impose a “solution” that ignored the concerns of the people actually doing the job.

    Note also this is also described as a 24% increase in pay over five years, and a significant wage increases retroactive to 2020. Rather vague, I think- and I’m betting that it will be at best 24% based on 2020 wages. That is, these workers might somewhat come close to making what they made in 2020 in real terms- maybe- but no mention of the on call forever issue.

    The brokenness comes in because I can’t help but notice that there seems to be no political party around that will make an attempt to win political power by winning the votes of people like these railroad workers.

    Instead, both appear intent upon treating the American workforce like the Antebellum South treated their workers. Not well, that is.

    Aside from bernie, that is.


  9. Having an interest in rail, and knowing a little from outside observation (I’ve never worked an operating job but I do as a volunteer), I’d say railroads have a legitimate gripe about scheduling. It is, however, nothing new. There are long-standing time on duty regulations with mandatory rest but part of the issue has always been the rest time starts the minute you sign off duty and includes no buffers for travel or when you actually got off duty, and you have to be ready to go on duty when called which doesn’t necessarily take into account commuting or other prep time. I think it has been expanded somewhat similar to the truckers where you can only work x number of hours in a 24 hour period and then have to be given additional time off but like most one-size-fits-all regs it may not work well for everybody.

    That said, reading a bit between the lines and because it’s the train operating unions holding out, I suspect the bigger issue is getting minimum two-man crews written into the contract.

  10. It’s usually hard for outsiders to tell what the real issues are in a labor dispute. There are always undercurrents circulating.

    I hadn’t heard about the two man crew minimum issue but I don’t find it far fetched that some might think that more than one pair of eyes to keep track of a train more than a mile long might be a good idea. At the same time, I dimly remember the controversy over eliminating brakemen and firemen long after they had been rendered superfluous.

    Hours of service are another fraught area. They are usually set for the convenience and financial advantage of those that don’t have to live with them. 20 years ago when I had to abide by the then standard rules for commercial truck drivers, the rules tended to put you on a 21 hour cycle, I found it like a permanent case of jet lag. I don’t think they’ve yet managed to sync them to a normal 24 hour day, it’s one of the reasons I was never tempted to keep driving trucks. I don’t know what the railroad rules are but they don’t seem to be grounded in physiological reality either. You have the railroads wanting to run the most trains with the smallest number of people and the unions wanting the most money for their workers.

    If these are the real real issues or not, I’m sure there are others. They’re running trains in Australia without any crew at all on board.

  11. Used to work a prison guard tower next to a railroad track.
    Saw a few interesting examples of everything: as for when the work time period ends, I saw a train stop a couple of miles from the closest road and the workers had to walk to the road to catch their rides who were waiting for them. I also saw a repair work crew doing some light maintenance – fifteen guys, with three doing the actual work and twelve standing/sitting around doing nothing at all.
    Managers who worship money don’t care how their policies affect the workers, and workers who worship money don’t care how much their demands will cost the public at large…up until their greed causes a serious crash/bankruptcy/you name it.

  12. They’re running trains in Australia without any crew at all on board.

    Yeah, but most of Australia is inhabited by nothing more than giant venomous spiders and carnivorous trees, with long stretches of completely straight line rails. I think the US is rather different.

    More seriously, I hadn’t read or heard anything about running a train with only one person aboard, which strikes me as making as much sense as flying a commercial airliner with only one pilot.

    What could go wrong? Lots, obviously. I’ve recently seen a video about a commercial flight that had the misfortune of having one of the pilots pass away inflight. I can easily imagine the ugliness to follow if the lone train operator has a similar misfortune while pulling a mile long train of some deadly chemical.

  13. The railroads actually invented the dead man. That was because of some accidents caused by sleeping engineers. This requires the engineer holds the throttle open against a spring with a mechanism that is intended to be hard to defeat. There are also sensors that sense movement and shut down the train if more than a short time elapses without movement. There are also automatic signals that would stop the train if they were passed without being acknowledged by the engineer but these aren’t everywhere, there are long stretches of track in the West that don’t have them.

    What is more concerning is that the train crew has to manage a train that’s more than a mile long. Hot box detection is done by detectors along the track now but the train crew has to handle switching out any failed cars to sidings and and I don’t se how one person could do that safely or at all. There’s also the matter of switching the train onto sidings. There are long stretches in the West without remote controlled switches and more than few accidents have happened when the train stopped short, leaving the last car or two on the main line or switches left in the wrong position. An extra pair of eyes, especially when the engineer can’t leave the driving position without stopping the train, is a good idea.

  14. One of America’s main lines runs through my daily life (actually the RR was here first and the people followed it, as I remind myself constantly) and I’ve noticed more trains with engines at both ends, and even the occasional engine-in-the-middle.

    One-man crew sounds terrible to this layman, especially after all the good points made.

  15. I guess I don’t understand why “the US is rather different from Australia”, re: the possibilities of unmanned trains? There are vast stretches of the country, basically almost everywhere west of the Mississippi, where the tracks go through extremely empty land? And every time you head stories of a crash of a train where the driver was going way too fast for a curve I wonder why the heck that’s even possible today, like why doesn’t the train know the route coming up and throttle itself down? For cases where a person tries to beat a train across an intersection, can a person really stop the train in time, or do so any better than say a lidar-equipped train could do so automatically? It just feels like a far far more solvable problem than the automated driver problem (that I was assured a decade ago was only a few years away, and I laughed at then, so it’s not like I’m an automation fetishist.).

  16. All trains operating on densely-trafficked line, and all trains carrying hazardous substances, are now required to be equipped with Positive Train Control. With this system, trains identify their position via GPS (or other system) and transmit it continuously. The system is aware of speed limitations and also, I believe, most signal indications, and will display and if necessary enforce these. PTC, though, may not be aware of certain conditions like vehicles stalled across the tracks or work gangs present on the tracks without properly notifying the Dispatcher.

    PTC should simplify implementation of self-driving trains, but hopefully, any such implementation will be better done than the Washington Metrorail system I described in my post Blood on the Tracks:

    It’s a little hard to understand, though, why RRs think elimination of one employee on a train would save all that much money, compared with the total amounts involved, especially given today’s very long trains. I didn’t go the the trouble of asking for quotes, but I believe the rate for a 1000-mile rail shipment, containerized, would be at least $400/ton. For a train capable of hauling 10,000 tons, that would be $4 million in revenues for the run. The cost of the employee per hour is…what?…maybe $80/hour, fully loaded. For 20 hours over the road, that is $1600. Not much out of $4 million.

    I suspect that it may not be so much the direct salary cost, but more the difficulty of getting *two* people in the right place at the right time, in compliance with the hours of service law, rather than just one. (or none)

  17. OK, this is embarrassing…my guesstimate of $400/ton for a 1000 mile shipment is way off. Found a site with a quote for $70 per net ton for 1300 miles, Houston to Cleveland, from 2020. Probably some discounts for mult-car and regular shipments. So guess $50/ton on average, for a 10,000-ton train, and we get:

    $500,000 freight revenue
    $2000 per-employee cost (26 hours at $80 loaded cost)

    Still, less than half a percent.

  18. Still, less than half a percent.

    Yeah, but if can run your trains with one person instead of two, then you are obviously saving 50% of labor costs.

    Every MBA in the land can see the awesomeness in that.

    If later on there’s a railroad Bhopal because that one person had to go to the bathroom or something- well, just make sure they sign enough forms accepting responsibility for anything and everything that could go wrong. Liability for the catastrophe will result in nothing more than an accounting charge, and the executives responsible will never ever have to worry about prison time for the people they killed.

    Whether or not the change from a two person crew to one worked out to be an actual cost saving in that circumstance doesn’t matter. The savings is counted immediately, any disaster is presumed to be a completely stunning surprise that no one could ever have foreseen.

    Except the low-ranking scapegoat who failed to tell the blessed executives What Could Go Wrong.

    Never forget that the only person charged for the 737 Max disasters was a test pilot, not the execs who made the decisions that led to hundreds of deaths.

  19. An example of what Xennady is talking about was the Exxon Valdez disaster. Exxon had reduced the crew on the supertanker — providing obvious savings on manpower costs. However, with the fast turn-round times in the port, the crew was tired, the captain almost asleep at his post and inadequate staffing on the bridge.

    Save $thousands, risk $Billions. But the risk-free spreadsheet said the right thing to do was to reduce the costs.

  20. The US military seems to be intent on a similar policy. The Navy has not had a good ship design in decades and now has female deck officers who don’t speak to each other when on watch. Recruiting is at crisis levels while vaccination is the premier concern along with white supremacy. God help us if Biden stumbles into a war in Ukraine or Taiwan. On “60 minutes” he again said we would defend Taiwan with troops. The latest nuclear carrier has catapults that don’t work.

  21. Mike K: “God help us if Biden stumbles into a war in Ukraine or Taiwan.”

    Biden* has already stepped forcefully into war in the Ukraine. If his Administration was not throwing $Billions we can’t afford into the corrupt Ukraine and arm-twisting EuroScum to destroy their own economies through sanctions, then reality would have prevailed in Kiev and there would have been a negotiated settlement before now. And tens of thousands of Ukrainians would not have died needlessly.

    And now Biden* is threatening war with China over Taiwan — a war on the far side of the Pacific that the US could never win.

    Biden* is obviously senile. His Administration is clearly evil. I was brought up believing we were the Good Guys. The actions of the Swamp Creatures have destroyed that belief.

  22. From that last link:

    My point? That with this much capital investment providing for this much make-up and movement, facilitating this much productivity of labor, attacking crew operating costs becomes destructive, rather than constructive, to good asset utilization, and will defeat productivity. Work will simply not get done. So we have to find a better way.

    Or not.

    We can do it the hedge fund way: Liquidate assets and drain cash into executive salaries and stock buybacks until there’s nothing left but the ballast.

    Work will not get done. I’m mildly disconcerted to see someone else write the sort of thing I do when I’m busy smearing crazy on the internet, because that makes me think I’m right, which is an awful prospect.

    Anyway, I have a notion- I’m not quite sure if I’ve ever written it down here- that American wages have been falling for generations and have now finally fallen enough to impact the willingness of people to actually work. That is, people would rather collect welfare money or live in their parent’s basement than take a job, because any job they can get just doesn’t pay enough.

    Of course, that isn’t the only factor- I’m always amazed at how much contempt I see piled upon people who do physical work, no matter how much they make or how important the work is- but I think the steady decline in wages is uhm, rather important.

    As Mike K notes, even with the sweet-sounding deal of a 24% raise, these railroad workers are still losing 4% a year. I suspect they’ve noticed this and aren’t pleased. It’s one thing to do a crappy job with a crap schedule which wrecks your home life for good money, it’s quite another to be expected to do it for crap money.

    Work will not get done- labor strife in this country is only just beginning. Or perhaps I should say, just resuming.

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