A railroad engineer or conductor typically earns a six-figure salary, retires with a pension and enjoys union benefits. They don’t need a college degree; the monthslong training is provided on the job. It’s the kind of career that ought to be popular — but Doering said trainees and longtimers alike are getting burned out. It used to be a job with eight- or nine-hour shifts and plenty of time at home. Now, Doering says railroading demands too much time away from one’s family and workdays that last up to 19 hours, combining 12-hour shifts with hours of waiting around for transportation or relief crews.
So, while you may not have been keeping up to date with rail congestion, industrial bigwigs and lawmakers alike are furious. The coal industry is slamming rail for the “meltdown” in service capacity and grain shippers said they had to spend $100 million more in shipping costs to get their product moved amid poor rail service. The Port of Los Angeles is taking to the press to demand rail move those gosh darn containers away, saying that railroaders could cause a “nationwide logjam” with the unmoved containers sitting around.
Let me tell you the hottest rail trend of the 2010s: precision-scheduled railroading. As The Wall Street Journal’s Paul Ziobro explained in a 2019 story, PSR means that railroads have set times for when they pick up cargo from their customers, not unlike a commercial airline. Before, railroads would wait for the cargo.
There are endless implications that come from this system, some of which my colleague Mike Baudendistel delved into in this 2020 article. PSR allowed railroads to reduce capital budgets, slash headcount and merge internal operations with glee. But its biggest boon to the railroaders was how much it boosted their cred on Wall Street, creating billions in shareholder value.
Even more exhausted are the rail workers themselves. Rail unions have been negotiating with their employers since January 2020, with a “dead end” in negotiations reported two years later.
If you think there a supply chain problem now; just wait til the railroad workers go on strike.