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INDEPENDENCE, Ohio, April 27 — BLET National Vice President Mark L. Wallace testified yesterday on behalf of the BLET at a hearing before the U.S. Surface Transportation Board titled “Urgent Issues in Freight Rail Service.”

STB announced on April 7 that it would hold a two-day hearing to investigate recent rail service problems and recovery efforts involving several Class I carriers. Testimony on the morning of April 26 came primarily from shipper groups and organized labor. During his testimony, Vice President Wallace said that customer service is suffering, the nation’s supply chain is getting worse by the day, and train crew employees are resigning at unprecedented levels due to the implementation of the so-called Precision Scheduled Railroading (PSR) business model and draconian attendance policies.

“There’s a culture of profits over safety as railroads have become controlled by hedge fund speculators,” Vice President Wallace said. “It’s the business model that’s impacting service.”

Vice President Wallace explained how 25,000 transportation and engine service employee jobs have been eliminated in recent years due to the implementation of PSR. As a result of these furloughs, the remaining workforce has been forced to work past the point of fatigue to pick up the slack. Railroads are forcing employees to be on call 24/7 through the implementation of draconian attendance policies. The result has been that over 1,000 train service employees have resigned in recent months, including some employees with 20 years of service — which is almost unheard of in the rail industry. Vice President Wallace also testified how railroads refuse to add employees to fill out pools and extra boards, which adds to fatigue by forcing fewer employees to work more and longer hours.

While crew shortages and mismanagement of crews are a problem with PSR, long trains may be a bigger problem, Vice President Wallace testified. He said long trains favored by the PSR operating model, which can be three miles long, cause major delays, reduce velocity, congest networks, and cause accidents. He was also critical of what he described as self-inflicted delays, in which train speeds are limited to half the allowable track speed (for example, 30 mph in a 60 mph zone) in an effort to use fewer locomotives for fuel conservation initiatives.

Regarding the continued mismanagement of the rail workforce, Vice President Wallace said train crews are often required to spend 20-30 hours at an away from home terminal prior to being called for a trip back home, which increases fatigue and destroys an employee’s quality of life. Train lineups, which in theory tell workers when they can expect to go to work, are inaccurate and unreliable, which causes tremendous amounts of frustration and anger among the union’s membership.

In a question-and-answer session with STB Chairman Martin Oberman, Vice President Wallace described ways in which the industry could improve its recovery efforts, better service its customers, and better utilize train crews. Vice President Wallace suggested railroads would be more fluid if they eliminated throttle restrictions and reduced train lengths to no more than 8,000-8,500 feet. The long trains block the system and cause the railroads to burn through more train crews prior to getting shipments to their destination.

Additional testimony on behalf of organized labor came from: Greg Regan, President of the Transportation Trades Department, AFL-CIO; Jeremy Ferguson, President of the SMART Transportation Division; and SMART-TD members Matthew Brukart, Steven Groat, and Chris Bond.

In announcing the hearing, Board Chairman Oberman said: “During my time on the Board, I have raised concerns about the primacy Class I railroads have placed on lowering their operating ratios and satisfying their shareholders even at the cost of their customers. Part of that strategy has involved cutting their workforce to the bare bones in order to reduce costs. Over the last six years, the Class Is collectively have reduced its workforce by 29% — that is about 45,000 employees cut from the payrolls. In my view, all of this has directly contributed to where we are today — rail users experiencing serious deteriorations in rail service because, on too many parts of their networks, the railroads simply do not have a sufficient number of employees.”

Vice President Wallace said that the Railway Labor Act was implemented nearly 100 years ago. Part of the goal of the RLA was to limit labor strikes because they would interrupt the nation’s supply chain. But, he pointed out that PSR has also had a major negative impact on interstate commerce. He suggested that change was necessary and urged the STB to work with Congress to put together a plan to better regulate the industry and protect the nation’s economy.

Vice President Wallace concluded by saying that the National Division had collected letters from BLET members throughout the United States that it would submit to STB for the record, which would further document the problems with PSR and describe how harsh railroad attendance policies have negatively impacted their personal and professional lives.

Also in attendance at the April 26 hearing to represent BLET were: National Secretary-Treasurer Stephen Bruno; and Assistant to the National President and Director of Research John Fink.

BLET National President Dennis Pierce thanked Vice President Wallace for testifying.

“It has been our position all along that PSR was nothing more than a Wall Street cash grab, and that shippers and workers have been left holding the bag,” President Pierce said. “I thank Vice President Wallace for the excellent job he did on behalf of BLET members. I hope that this hearing will motivate the STB, along with Congress and the White House, to make meaningful improvements to our nation’s railroad industry.”

Day 2 of the hearing is currently underway (live stream here). BLET’s written comments can be downloaded here (PDF).