U.S. Rep Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) testifies before the House Rail and Pipelines Subcommittee on May 12.


Following up a hearing in late April on freight rail problems caused by Precision Scheduled Railroading (PSR), members of the Surface Transportation Board appeared before the U.S. House Rail and Pipelines Subcommittee on May 12 to further discuss steps to be taken to heal the nation’s supply chain.

U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio delivers his statement on PSR.

“We are at a point of crisis, and we have to deal with that crisis meaningfully,” U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) said. “Freight service in the United States in America, we used to have the best freight rail in the world, is abysmal.

“The evil ghost of Hunter Harrison lives on. The legacy of this man is disgusting, what he did he has addicted the CEOs of the rail industry to watching the ticker on Wall Street and using their resources to benefit their shareholders and not run railroads like railroads.”

DeFazio mentioned an unlikely alliance — shippers, energy and chemical companies, oil companies, big agriculture and rail labor — coalescing as Class Is’ service-averse PSR scheme continues to rake in record profits and benefit shareholders and CEOs.

“We’ve got to act more decisively and more quickly,” DeFazio told the STB members. “We’re going downhill here really quickly. You’re not there to protect the bottom line of these railroads and the CEOs’ bonuses. You’re not there even for the shippers’ bottom line. But are there to make this system work better, keep costs lower and be competitive.

“I want freight railroads to be successful … but that success should be defined by the amount of freight they move across the nation, the amount of greenhouse gas they prevent and the safety of their employees and the communities they traverse. Stock buybacks, dividends can’t be the measure of success for freight rail in this country.”

Surface Transportation Board Chairman Martin Oberman was appointed by President Biden in January 2021 after 29 percent workforce cuts that began before the COVID pandemic’s start — a total of more than 45,000 employees — these cuts can be linked to the current deteriorated service.

Surface Transportation Board Chairman Martin Oberman testifies before the subcommittee on May 12.

“The railroads could not possibly have screwed up this stuff anymore than they are doing on their own. There’s nothing we could do to make it worse right now. It is in terrible shape as has been indicated by members of the committee and at our hearing,” Oberman said. “They’ve cut labor to below the bone, really. They have thousands of locomotives that they’ve mothballed … That’s the big picture. That’s the overview that concerns me most. In order to make up for their shortage of labor, they’re overworking and abusing the workforces they have. Long-term employees are literally leaving. So you’re not only [dealing with] a shortage of workers but you’re losing a tremendous amount of institutional knowledge.

“Rail labor reports particular difficulty directly caused by increased job uncertainty, worsening working conditions and insufficient incentive,” he said. “I am not optimistic about significant improvement in service in the near term.”

The STB’s April 26 hearing resulted in a unanimous rulemaking mandate made days later that Class I carriers be required to detail on-time performance for first- and last-mile service, submit recovery plans and provide frequent updates to the board. A notice of proposed rulemaking also would provide emergency relief for rail customers in urgent need of rail service.

U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen asks about the BNSF “Hi-Viz” policy.

U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, a Tennessee Democrat, brought up the “Hi-Viz” attendance policy that BNSF enacted in February, noting a letter he received from a 13-year retired veteran engineer that talked about the new challenges the punitive points-based attendance policy had given him in facing his medical challenges.

“Demands on employees have only increased,” Cohen said. “These unreasonable expectations are driving people out of the industry. They’re doing the minimum, which the federal government requires on FMLA and some other things, but they ought to be doing more than the minimum to bolster the workforce, care for their employees and bolster the rail industry in general.”

The low workforce levels are making it harder for service to recover, these “irresponsible” business cuts and layoff decisions by the railroads have also made people not want to come back, Oberman said.

“What could not be more clear is that the railroads do not have significant redundancy. It’s quite clear to me that they don’t have a cushion. As I have said many times, you wouldn ‘t send a football team out on the field without a backup quarterback. But what the railroads have done is just that,” he said. “They have set the rail crew levels at levels when they have no backup. So when there was COVID, when there’s a vortex, when there’s any disruption of workers getting to the job, the trains stopped running.

“Remember, when you lay off an experienced engineer or conductor and there’s no assurance they’ll come back and many of them did not — they went into other industries. To replace that person under FRA restrictions and just general common sense requires six months of training.”

U.S. Rep. Troy Nehls gives incorrect information about rail workers’ salaries.

U.S. Rep. Troy Nehls (R-Texas), railing against inflation and union density in the rail industry, himself produced some inflated and inaccurate estimate of the average Class I rail employee’s salary as being $137,000.

“At the hearing we had two weeks ago, the railroads came in and proudly proclaimed that they were trying to hire new conductors at $52,000 a year, not $137,000, and when I asked them how they were going to compete with Wal-Mart hiring truck drivers at $110,000, they didn’t have an answer,” Oberman countered.

U.S. Rep. Stephen Lynch of Massachusetts clears up misinformation by U.S. Rep. Troy Nehls about salaries of rail workers.

Nehls’ inaccurate statement also was later corrected by Rep. Stephen Lynch of Massachusetts, who also noted that rail workers were not rewarded for working through the pandemic and that nation rail contract negotiation have dragged on for more than two years.

“You can see the attention that the railroads have given to labor when you look at how much they’ve cut the labor force and how much they’re not respecting and looking out for their best interest, you can see that. They’re giving more money to their shareholders. There hasn’t been one major bonus or pay raise in those couple years that they’ve been working us out of COVID. No hint towards that,” STB member Robert Primus said.

STB Member Karen Hedlund also referred to the longer trains PSR uses that frequently dwarf the sidings on the lines, causing congestion and obstructing passenger rail’s on-time service and suspects that STB will need to address it.

“There’s one long-distance line that was above 80 percent,” she said. “Some of the shorter lines perform over 80 percent, but the long-distance lines do not perform well. When there’s a three-mile-long train in front of a little Amtrak train, the three-mile-long train may not be able to get out of the way for many, many miles.”

SMART Transportation Division Illinois State Legislative Director Bob Guy testified Nov. 13 before the U.S. House Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials regarding the future of Amtrak as members of Congress continue the reauthorization process for the national passenger carrier and the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act.
He touched upon the topics of assault upon workers, Amtrak funding and having a labor member on the carrier’s board.

Illinois State Legislative Director Bob Guy testifies before members of the U.S. House rail subcommittee on Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2019. At left behind Guy is SMART TD National Legislative Director Gregory Hynes and to the right behind Guy is Alternate National Legislative Director Jared Cassity.

Guy called for Congress to increase the level of appropriations reserved for Amtrak so that the carrier can go forward as an important part in the groundwork of a multimodal transportation system in the United States.
“Congress should allow Amtrak to be America’s railroad and support their ability to maintain a qualified workforce that meets customers’ demands now and well into the future,” Guy told representatives on the subcommittee.
He said steps taken by legislators in the FAST Act, including the addition of three grants administered by the Federal Railroad Administration, have helped to increase momentum for improving Amtrak’s service.
“These grants are successful, and they work.”
But operationally, there are areas of concern — Guy urged representatives to preserve and protect Amtrak’s long-distance service, which had been in jeopardy of being axed last year — especially the Southwest Chief route — before legislators stepped in.
On the administrative side, Guy said the Amtrak Board of Directors should have a member from labor on it, mirroring what the Railroad Retirement Board does, Guy said. Often, the experiences of SMART TD members and other unionized workers who keep Amtrak running day to day can be enlightening on what to do and what not to do when running the railroad, he said.
“Passengers interact with our members on board trains,” Guy said. “We hear concerns and complaints … having a labor member at a board level will help Amtrak make decisions that could affect service.”
Guy said employees also are not given enough resources to deal with violence against them. Carrier-provided protections for Amtrak’s rail workers such as de-escalation and self-defense training aren’t there, he said, and neither is counseling after an incidence of violence occurs. SMART TD brother Michael Case was shot in 2017, and the incident spurred the introduction of legislation to treat the punishment of transit worker assaults the same as those perpetrated on airline workers.
Guy was one of three labor representatives who discussed the carrier’s relationship with labor. Over the past year, Amtrak has engaged in what has been described by some as “union busting” behavior, especially as it concerns cuts to the jobs of unionized call-center and food-service workers, police officers and rural station agents.
“When you are reducing the workforce that’s in charge of inspections and fixing equipment and whatnot, it makes it hard to keep things in a state of good repair, regardless if new equipment is coming,” Guy said. “I wouldn’t want to see worker reductions to the point where safety is jeopardized. We don’t think it is, but that’s a path we wouldn’t want to see.”
Amtrak reported a positive fiscal 2019 with an increase in ridership, a decrease in operating loss and an increase in operating revenue, but subcommittee Chairman Dan Lipinski, who represents Illinois’ 3rd District, was highly critical of the carrier’s cuts that helped to achieve those results in his opening remarks.
“Amtrak clearly has decided that the way to prosperity is to have its workers pay for it,” Lipinski said. “This is not the way to run this railroad.”
Among the cuts were about 500 jobs at a call center in Riverside, Calif. About 350 of those jobs were later brought back at non-union sites.
“Amtrak used to be an enviable place to work,” said Jack Dinsdale, national vice president of the Transportation Communications Union, in criticizing the loss of those union jobs. “It was about union busting, period.”
Also testifying on labor’s behalf was Dan Regan, secretary of the AFL-CIO’s Transportation Trades Department.
Watch the entire hearing.

    SMART Transportation Division President John Previsich testifies Thursday afternoon before the House Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials.

SMART Transportation Division President John Previsich appeared before the U.S. House Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials to testify on the state of the railroad workforce.
Rather than use his prepared written testimony, he delivered a statement in response to the testimony given earlier in the hearing by Federal Railroad Administration Administrator Ron Batory. In his statement, President Previsich told the representatives about issues crucial to the rail labor workforce, including what he described as FRA’s “abdication” of its safety oversight duties in the wake of its withdrawal last month of the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking regarding a minimum train crew size.
He also addressed questions posed by subcommittee members on subjects including Congress’s role in helping to ensure a safe working environment for rail workers, the national Safe Freight Act two-person crew legislation and the role of technology, including automation, and its effects on the rail labor workforce.
A video of President Previsich’s testimony and responses is embedded below.

Video of the full hearing containing President Previsich’s testimony as well as that of other railroad labor leadership in attendance is available here on YouTube.

In a state-of-the-union speech uncharacteristically short on laundry list projects and policies, President Obama Tuesday night conspicuously singled out high-speed rail as “the most reliable way to move people,” saying that “within 25 years, our goal is to give 80 percent of Americans access to high-speed rail, which could allow you go places in half the time it takes to travel by car.

“For some [high-speed rail] trips, it will be faster than flying — without the pat-down,”said the president. “As we speak, routes in California and the Midwest are already underway.”

The White House press office said the president will release more details on his desires for high-speed rail, transit and Amtrak improvements when he delivers his fiscal-year 2012 budget request to Congress in early February.

“Countries in Europe and Russia invest more in their roads and railways than we do,” said the president in his state-of-the-union speech. “China is building faster trains … We have to do better. America is the nation that built the transcontinental railroad.”

Many Republicans, however, have signaled they will oppose Obama’s high-speed rail spending proposals and also seek to reduce federal subsidies for Amtrak during congressional budget deliberations.

However, the chairman of the House Rail Subcommittee, Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), indicated he is not opposed to more spending on high-speed rail and Amtrak, but has reservations. Shuster said:

“The Obama administration’s high-speed rail grants, rather than focusing on a small number of projects with the most potential for success, have been spread among numerous projects. Most of these have been grants to Amtrak, and nearly all are slower-speed rail projects.

“In addition, the administration has virtually ignored the one region of the United States where high-speed rail makes the most sense and would have the most national benefit — the Northeast Corridor between Washington, New York and Boston. Amtrak’s Acela currently serves this route, but at an average speed of only 83 mph.”

And Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), chairman of the subcommittee’s parent, the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee, has voiced support for more high-speed rail funding in the Northeast Corridor and for a limited number of high-speed rail projects — but with a caveat: private sector investment in addition to federal funding.