In the End Ownership Gets Most of What it Wants

I ran across a couple of articles recently that reminded me that although you can fight railroad ownership in the end ownership usually gets its way.

The first article was a piece about a town hall meeting in Willianson, West Virginia, where attendees took turns roasting Norfolk Southern for furloughs and job transfers.

This coal mining town of 3,000 is located along the Tug River on the mainline of the former Norfolk & Western and is the home of a yard serving coal traffic created by the nearby mines.

The coal industry is suffering and railroad coal traffic is down. Then precision scheduled railroading happened leading to fewer trains and employees. In the past eight months NS has eliminated 50 positions in Williamson.

“My husband has worked on the railroad for 22 years,” said one woman. “We have four children, one is in college, one is in high school, one is in middle school, and then we have a seven-month old. We cannot just up and move.”

That comment reflected the reluctance if not outright refusal of many to move to where jobs are.

Economists cite studies showing Americans are less mobile now than they have been during other periods, including the dust bowl days of the Great Depression of the 1930s.

A man who said his father worked for the railroad accused NS of having a vendetta against Williamson.

“Norfolk Southern is a Fortune 500 company. They are not really hurting for money, so why are they cutting all these people off that have families to support,” he said.

The mayor of Williamson tried to talk with NS officials but they have yet to get back to him.

Without jobs Williamson won’t have an economic base. And without an economic base, “we’re not going to be a community much more,” the mayor said.

“We have the best community along the line from Roanoke to Portsmouth, I guarantee it,” the mayor said. “And this yard with its 100-plus year history in Williamson is critical, and we have a lot to offer them as much as they want to offer us jobs. And that should be the approach we take.”

The the mayor said he wants to have is unlikely to occur and even if it did it would be brief. NS is not going to be swayed by unsubstantiated chamber of commerce rhetoric.

Those attending that Williamson town hall meeting may not fully understand the economics of Class 1 railroads but they know how to speak from the heart.

Yet NS, which did not send a representative to the Williamson town hall, issued a statement filled with public relations speak.

“In today’s rapidly changing environment, Norfolk Southern continues to focus on ensuring that we have the optimal number of people and assets at every location across our system in order to operate safely and efficiently,” NS said in a statement that also described what it was doing in Williamson as “re-positioning” the jobs.

The pain felt by those in Williamson means little at NS headquarters in Atlanta. It’s not necessarily that NS executives are heartless, but they make decisions based on numbers and those do not favor Williamson.

One may be the loneliest number according to a song popularized by Three Dog Night in 1969, but in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic it may be music to the ears of railroad executives.

A column published on the website of trade magazine Railway Age by Frank Wilner, suggested railroads might use the pandemic as an opportunity to force unions to accept one-person train operating crews.

Wilner’s reasoning is that if the pandemic gets to a point where a significant number of operating employees are unable to work the railroads might be able to persuade federal authorities to allow them to operate trains with one-person crews as an emergency measure.

Already federal authorities have waived hours of service rules for truckers hauling food and medical supplies directly related to the pandemic.

Presumably, one-person crews will be implemented safely and efficiently, which is what the railroad industry has been arguing for years can be done with today’s technology.

Railroad ownership has made no secret of its desire to negotiate contracts allowing one-person crews.

Wilner, who once worked for the Association of American Railroads, argued that safety is not really the issue underlying one-person crews. It’s economics.

One-person crews will mean fewer railroad employees as some of the duties now performed by onboard conductors are shifted to roving conductors serving multiple trains.

The unions have dug in their heels on the one-person crew issue by refusing to even talk about it in contract talks.

Wilner believes that stance won’t hold up long term. Unions once insisted on four- or five-person crews, but eventually agreed to a contract allowing two-person crews.

It is going to take time, perhaps years, before railroad owners get their one-person crews.

I don’t doubt that Wilner is correct when he asserts no union has ever successfully stopped the advance of technology.

“Indeed, the most productive outcomes have been negotiating and helping to manage new technology’s implementation,” he wrote.

Wilner said the consolation prize for labor might be income protection.

Labor turned down such an offer a few years ago when BNSF dangled lifetime income protection for every affected union member and increased wages in exchange for partial one-person crew operations.

Will railroads offer something similar in the current round of talks? We don’t know yet, but at some point ownership will get most, if not all, of what it wants.

As for Williamson, I don’t know the history of railroad employment there but I’d wager it has dwindled significantly over the years even before PSR came along.

My hometown in Illinois used to be a railroad town employing more than a thousand but today virtually no one who lives there is employed by a railroad.

It remains to be seen whether the coronavirus will be a step toward one-person crews as Wilner has suggested could happen.

More certain is that reduced operations in that rail yard in Williamson will happen if that is what NS wants.

Tags: , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: