In the early hours of Thursday morning, major US freight railroad companies reached a tentative agreement with unions, narrowly averting a nationwide rail shutdown less than 24 hours before a strike deadline. A work stoppage would have heaped devastating consequences on the nation’s economy and supply chain, nearly 30 percent of which relies on rail. Even a near miss had some impact. Long-distance Amtrak passenger services, which use freight tracks, and hazardous materials shipments are now being restored, after railroads suspended them to prevent people or cargo becoming stranded by a strike.
The tentative agreement, to be voted on by union members, came through talks brokered by the Biden administration. It scrambled this week to avoid a shutdown that would have caused major disruption and worsened inflation, by restricting the supply of crucial goods and driving up shipping costs. Rail unions and the railroad industry association released statements Thursday welcoming the deal. But freight rail service has been unreliable since long before this week’s standoff, and trade groups representing rail customers say much work remains to restore it to acceptable levels.
Just two-thirds of trains were arriving within 24 hours of their scheduled time this spring, down from 85 percent pre-pandemic, forcing rail customers to suspend business or—grimly—consider euthanizing their starving chickens. Scott Jensen, a spokesperson for the American Chemistry Council, whose members depend on rail to ship chemicals, called the latest shutdown threat “another ugly chapter in this long saga of freight rail issues.”
Although Thursday’s agreement was lauded by companies dependent on rail freight, the ACC, the National Grain and Feed Association, and other trade groups also argue that further reforms are needed to the rail industry. Competition has dwindled as service concentrated amongst a handful of big railroads, which slashed their combined workforce by 29 percent over the past 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 periods, and a rule that would allow customers to move cargo to another service provider at certain interchanges, to work around the fact many customers are captive to a single carrier.
Major US freight railroads made deep staff cuts in recent years as part of an effort to implement a leaner, more profitable operating model called Precision Scheduled Railroading. Profits have indeed soared—two of the largest freight carriers, Union Pacific and BNSF, owned by Warren Buffett, broke records last year. But after many workers decided not to return 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 a network that had been stripped of its resiliency.
Many freight rail jobs have always involved erratic schedules and long stretches away from home, 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 for taking time off outside of their vacation time, which averaged three weeks a year, or holiday and personal time, which reached 14 days a year for the most senior employees.