Wednesday, May 11, 2022

According to the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers & Trainmen, more than 700 railroader employees have resigned since Feb. 1

Working conditions on BNSF Railway are not the sweet deal they once were, and the introduction of a new attendance policy earlier this year has the union in a tizzy. 

One union officials have called “the worst and most egregious attendance policy ever adopted by any rail carrier”, which isn't spelling out what their grievance is with, just that they are getting asked for something they don't want to give. 

More than 700 railroaders have walked off the job at BNSF because of it, according to the union.

Maybe they got tired of the way things are day to day, though, it's nothing new. The rules of time on the clock, and on the job, versus time that they must not be on the job, and must take a break, are a lot like the rules that truckers have to put up with ( 11 hours of driving time within a 14-hour workday )

Federal law mandates that locomotive engineers, conductors and other railroad employees work no more than 12 hours a day and have a minimum of 10 hours off between shifts.

About 6 years ago, BNSF changed how it assigned its employees to trains. Instead of having them work the same stretch of track every trip, which maxes the amount of time employees spend at home, the company would call employees to work trains going in any direction out of their home base, extending the amount of time employees were away from home, and BNSF also decided to put fewer employees on the “extra board,” reducing the amount of people on the schedule, and increasing the amount of time that "on call" employees with less seniority, are getting called to work a shift. 

It's very similar to the utility company union employees are working, the more senior people can opt out of extra shift work, and then the people with less seniority have no option but to show up when called. 

BNSF employees that Montana Free Press spoke with said the change made an already challenging work-life balance worse, but it was nothing compared to what was announced in January. Starting Feb. 1, the railroad implemented a new attendance policy called “Hi-Viz” that assigns all employees 30 points. If they miss a call or take an unplanned day off, even for a family emergency, sickness or fatigue, they lose points. The exact number of points deducted depends on the type of absence and where it falls on the calendar (weekend days and holidays cost more points). An employee can get four points back if they’re available to work 14 days in a row. If an employee loses all their points, they can be disciplined. If they lose their points multiple times they can be fired.

I'll leave it to you to read the article for more on that, but I want to include in this post the following info on the railroad industry:

BNSF’s labor strife comes at a precarious time for America’s freight railroads. In recent months, some of the largest railroads in America, including BNSF, have struggled to deliver reliable service to customers, with trains running slower and freight cars sitting longer in rail yards waiting for deliveries. Service has gotten so bad that the federal regulator that oversees the industry called executives from four of the country’s largest railroads to a hearing last week in Washington, D.C., to explain themselves. BNSF’s Vice President of Transportation Matt Garland admitted during the hearing that his company’s “service has not met our own expectations,” but said that it was quickly hiring more workers and taking old locomotives out of storage to meet demand.

According to the U.S. Surface Transportation Board, America’s largest freight railroads have reduced their workforce by a combined 45,000 people, or 29%, in the last six years. In 2021, BNSF posted record-breaking profits, despite moving fewer carloads of freight than it had before the pandemic.

the railroad industry has a federally run retirement program separate from Social Security.

The Railway Labor Act of 1926 was the first federal law that guaranteed the right of workers to organize, but it also set rules in place that says when a railroad union could strike, because there was a time when that could cripple the economy.


  1. Twenty or so years ago a man by the name of E Hunter Harrison became the darling of the various Class 1 railroads and Wall Street. He implemented a rail strategy that became known as “Precision Scheduled Railroading,” or PSR for short, on the Canadian National/Illinois Central Railroad. His perceived success prompted the Canadian Pacific Railway to secure his services, and shortly thereafter it was ditto for the CSXT Railroad. To the best of my knowledge, BNSF/ATSF never employed the man, but from what I read in the post, his fingerprints are all over it. Although PSR is not mentioned in the post, the reader can be absolutely certain it has to a large extent shaped the issues discussed. The following is an excerpt from an article on PSR. “Precision railroading or precision scheduled railroading (PSR) is a concept in freight railroad operations pioneered by E. Hunter Harrison in 1993 and adopted by nearly every North American Class I railroad (except BNSF). It shifts the focus from older practices, such as unit trains, hub and spoke operations and individual car switching at hump yards, to emphasize point-to-point freight car movements on simplified routing networks. Under PSR, freight trains operate on fixed schedules, much like passenger trains, instead of being dispatched whenever a sufficient number of loaded cars are available. In the past, container trains and general merchandise trains operated separately; under PSR they are combined as needed. Inventories of freight cars and locomotives are reduced and fewer workers are employed for a given level of traffic. The result is often substantial improvement in railroad operating ratios, and other financial and operating metrics, at the cost of criticism of poorer service, long-term capacity issues, more derailments due to longer trains (among other safety issues due to trains of this length), and crew fatigue.”

    A different article suggests that since 2019 20,000 railroaders have been laid off, though PSR is not cited as the reason. To be sure though, it has contributed as railroads push harder and harder to run their trains with skeleton sized pools of workers.

    Another thing not mentioned in the post driving cost cuts is a carriers accounting “operating ratio.” This has almost become the single most important metric that determines the perceived success or failure of a railroad CEO. To say it’s an obsession is fair I believe, to the point now where it’s a very personal competition between competing carrier executives. The ratio is an expression of how much of a dollar it costs to run a business. An operating ratio of 80 means it costs 80 cents out of every revenue dollar to keep a business going. Obviously the lower the number the better.

    My understanding is rail executives today are shooting for the low sixties, a number unheard of not that long ago.

    Union represented train crews bear a certain amount of responsibility for the Hi-Viz problem themselves though. Enough of them have abused their prerogative to take time off for so long the HI-Viz policy was inevitable. Sick time and the Federal Family Emergency provisions were two of the favorite abuses during my time on the railroad. Brickyard 400? No problem. “I’ve been up all night with diarrhea and have not had enough sleep to be rested properly. Therefore it’s not safe for me to work today, putting the well being of my co-workers at risk...and Honey, make sure there’s plenty of ice in the cooler."

    Multiply that enough in some terminals and they're effectively shut down. Do it often enough and car metrics become unfavorable. Do it on a widespread basis enough and the operating ratio takes off. Operating ratio takes off and CEO and stockholders begin paying attention, looking for ways to contain costs. Hi-Viz was not birthed in a vacuum.

    1. thank you for the thorough look at it! I know how damn long it takes to type, and I appreciate your comment. I wish you'd make a blog!

  2. friend of mine works for a RR, for the first 7 or 8 years, its not a full tie job with predictable hours.
    its a part time job, and you have to be at the yard within I think ( someone correct me ) 2 hours of when they call you to go to work. which is really weird, trains dont have a schedule? they dont know when a train is scheduled to leave ?
    RRs are famous for recruiting and hiring hundreds and then laying them off a few days or weeks after they get hired. must be some tax credit or tax dodge for hiring new employees or something .
    and trucks move the cargo much faster. If you have weeks or months to wait for your cargo to arrive, and you have railroad tracks to your business, you can ship it by rail and save money, but if you need your cargo delivered in a timely manner, you'd better use a truck. trucks can, if you are willing to pay for team drivers, can go coast to coast in less than 48 hours.
    it would take months for a railroad to move the same cargo the exact same route, and thats only possible IF you have RR tracks to the businesses at both ends.

    from 1987 to 1997 I owned a tractor trailer, well I owned the tractor, and worked with a subsidiary of Norfolk Southern Railroad called Triple Crown Service. they used trailers called "Road Railers" .
    they were specially designed trailers that could be placed directly on the RR tracks, and RR wheels attached to the backs of the trailers. they would connect about 200 trailers to one locomotive and run them directly down the tracks, without having to use flatcars or cranes etc. the RR moved the trailers long distance and the truckers delivered them within 250 miles of the terminal on each end.
    seems like a great idea. but they couldnt make it work, somehow the RR managed to screw it up and Triple Crown once had like 14 or 15 terminals all over the eastern and central US, but now I think they are down to 2 terminals and have sold off nearly all of the roadrailers, which have had the special railroad attachments torched off to reduce weight and they are now being used as normal highway trailers.