Another Union Blasts Railroads, Professor Says PSR Not the Only Cause of Rail Service Issues

Another railroad labor organization has weighed in on the service issues afflicting U.S. Class 1 railroads by saying in a letter to the U.S. Surface Transportation Board that the carriers need more regulatory oversight.

“It is clear that a lack of oversight has allowed Class I railroads to operate in a manner that is harmful to shippers, employees, and the American public, and these issues will not resolve out of self-regulation by the carriers,” wrote Greg Ragan, president of The Transportation Trades Department of the AFL-CIO.

The letter noted that in the previous five years before the COVID-19 pandemic surfaced that Norfolk Southern reduced its operating personnel by 24 percent.

The letter was in support of a similar plea made to the Board by the National Grain and Feed Association, which blamed the adoption of the precision scheduled railroading operating model for a deterioration of rail freight service.

“It is completely unsurprising that this would result in crew shortages and rigid inflexibility in the network,” Regan wrote. “These cuts have occurred with complete impunity for the railroads, and we continue to urge the Board to consider the impacts of these ill-considered mass layoffs on service quality.”

The Transportation Trades Department includes unions representing locomotive engineers, conductors, train dispatchers, and maintenance-of-way employees.

In a related development, a professor who studies railroad operations told a shippers conference last week that the service woes besetting Class 1 railroads are the result of a combination of forces and not just due to the widespread adoption of the precision scheduled railroading operating model.

Trains magazine reported on its website that Peter Swan, associate professor of logistics and operations management at Penn State Harrisburg, said that although PSR has played a role in causing service woes other forces affecting freight service include the COVID-19 pandemic, rising demand for freight transportation, and labor shortages.

Speaking to the North East Association of Rail Shippers conference, Swan said a system that is designed for maximum efficiency doesn’t do well when disruptions occur as has happened with the global supply chain.

Congestion in the supply chain results in longer shipper times which in turn require more resources, which transportation companies may not be able to provide on short notice.

Swan noted that it is not just labor shortages at railroads that have hamstrung transportation. Also playing a role are worker and equipment shortages at warehouses, ports and intermodal terminals

“If it takes eight days instead of six days, that means you need another 30 percent of chassis, which we don’t have,” Swan said. “As a result, we get congestion because containers are sitting at ports, they’re sitting at rail terminals. That lowers driver productivity. So, now we need more drivers than we had before.”

The Trains report said Swan has long been critical of PSR, but said he doesn’t see the operating model as the primary cause of service failures.

He indicated during his remarks that he is not sure if the failure of railroads to maintain their work force is entirely their fault.

Reducing capacity by changing the way railroad yards operate, making operational changes and maintaining a smaller locomotive fleet have all played a role, Swan said.

At the same time he said some PSR practices are good management and have had positive effects. It is just that management’s actions have had negative consequences when traffic is disrupted or demand surges above normal.

More of Swan’s remarks can be found on the Trains website at

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