Railroad Working Conditions, Disasters, and Workers’ Organizing: Reflections of a former rail worker 

Robert Bartlett

Posted February 22, 2023

Norfolk Southern derailed train cars (image from The Lever: https://www.levernews.com/content/images/size/w1000/format/webp/2023/02/Norfolk-Southern-Derailment-Cars.png)

In the wake of the bipartisan congressional imposition of a rail contract in December, there has been a focus on the inability to at least provide some sick days for rail workers, a “privilege” they have never had.  What is lost in centering the dispute on that admittedly absurd denial is the overall deterioration of work conditions in an industry which has always been known for its focus on profits over safety for both workers and the communities through which trains pass.  

The train derailment in eastern Ohio has brought the consequences of putting profit over safety into sharp focus for those willing to look beyond the catastrophic predictions of doom should rail workers be allowed to strike.  Before going into the detailed analysis of the Ohio disaster provided by the cross-craft group Railroad Workers United (RWU) https://myemail.constantcontact.com/Special-Report–Monster-Train-Wreck-in-Ohio.html?soid=1116509035139&aid=fzMOujXbqBo let me describe some of the trends in how the railroads have traditionally operated from when I first hired out as a brakeman on the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad (now consolidated into the Union Pacific) in 1974.  I speak with the most familiarity of what train crews coped with every day.

In 1974 when decent paying industrial jobs were relatively easy to find, the turnover on my railroad was constant.  My first week on the job consisted of being in a training class with about 15 other new hires.  We spent a week learning some rudiments of the job and the “Rule Book” which detailed all the safety rules that we were supposed to follow.  People used to joke that every rule was based upon some accident that either caused an injury or death to a rail worker and there was certainly truth to that.  The skill that they focused on was on how to get on and off moving equipment, i.e. engines and rail cars.  This is an inherently dangerous thing to do under any circumstance, since if you miss getting your foot into the “stirrup” at the bottom of the ladder on the side of a boxcar you at best might be dragged alongside the car until you extracted yourself or in the worst case you might be run over by the wheels and either dismembered or killed.  You were expected to do this at all times of the day or night, in conditions of rain, sleet, or snow.  

Once you got on, you were expected to climb to the top of boxcars to tighten or loosen manual brakes -all while the train was moving.  Newer boxcars were safer in that the brakes were only about 5 feet off the ground, while older rolling stock had brakes at the top of the car.  These antiquated cars should have either been retired or retrofitted with lower brakes, but the practice of railroads was to use the equipment until it wore out.  Eventually in the 1990s the rules changed and to get on and off the car or engine, it needed to be standing.

In a class of 15, like the one I was in, more than half of the people quit the job within months.  It wasn’t the dangerous conditions so much that forced people to look for another job, it was the irregular schedule of never knowing when you were going to be called into work.  When a recession hit the economy around 1980, and with the decline of industries like steel and auto, those other high paying semi-skilled union jobs largely disappeared and then the turnover slowed down.  Recently, with the worsening of conditions in all the rail crafts, turnover has increased even in rural areas where a rail job used to be highly coveted and clung to in the midst of the depopulation of small towns. 

So what was work like 50 years ago compared to now?  I was hired about 6 months after the first concessions on crew size were instituted.  A normal crew on both over the road and in the yard freight trains consisted of an engineer, a conductor and two brakemen.  In late 1973, the United Transportation Union (UTU now SMART-TD), a merger of several craft unions including conductors, trainmen, switchmen, and firemen, signed an agreement to introduce “2-man jobs”.  Yes, women didn’t begin to be hired for train crews until the late 1970’s.  The “2 men” referred to the positions filled by UTU members who worked along with an engineer.  The UTU workers got a pay increase, but they worked along with the engineer, largely in the yards.  Over the road trains continued to have 4 people crews: an engineer and brakeman on the engine and the conductor and 2nd brakeman on the caboose.  You may have seen cabooses scenically deployed as restaurants or quaint tourist items to gawk at like similarly outmoded devices like steam locomotives.  

Cabooses were an important safety device on a train where a number of potentially dangerous events can occur..  One example is a “shifted load”.  Commonly this would happen on flat cars carrying lumber which could shift beyond the side of the car, potentially hitting a train going in the other direction.  Another hazard was old rail cars that had lubricant boxes near the wheels to keep friction from heating up the wheels, which could weaken the steel and make it lose structural integrity and shatter, causing  derailment.  In a caboose the two crew members would sit on either side of the train and observe the train ahead, especially when it was going around curves.  People on the head end of the train would do the same.  A goal of the railroads was to eliminate the cabooses and the crew who rode in them.  This was accomplished in the 1990s. 

The result was that currently all over the road trains have only two people on the engine and they now want to cut the crew size to one person.  A parallel development in the downsizing of railroads was the move toward “unit trains” or trains composed of only one type of car, say a coal train.  These trains are loaded at the mine and then travel as one to a power generating plant or a shipping port, never needing to be taken apart.  In the 1970s, the majority of trains were “mixed freight”, meaning that loads originating from many factories were lumped together into trains heading to a terminal, where cars bound for that terminal were taken off and the remainder routed to their destinations.  This was the old style of the railroads where a lot of work was done in yards by crews.  Today, with the mass abandonment of tracks and service to smaller communities, industries are forced to load a container and then have that trucked to a yard where it will be put on a container train.

In larger yards there was sometimes a “hump” yard where a track of mixed load cars would be pushed up a gentle grade until it reached the top where the track started going downhill.  A brakeman would walk next to the train pulling the pins that uncouple cars and gravity would pull them down the hill and people in towers would electronically throw switches to direct them onto separate tracks.  A boring, but relatively safe job.  

On the other end of the yard, however, there was a job that was decidedly perilous, called a skate man.  A “skate” is a piece of steel that fits on the rail with a curved end that a car rolling down the track would, in the best of circumstances, roll up onto and the weight of the car would push it against the rail generating friction and the car would roll to a stop.  Sometimes the skate would be kicked out by the wheel, and it would become a projectile.  Then the skate man had to jump on the car, while it was moving, and climb up to find a hand brake which then had to be tightened, so the brake pad would work on the wheel and the car would stop.  You needed to stop the cars because otherwise they would just roll out and possibly run into the side of a train pulling out of one of the other tracks.  One hazardous condition was the debris dislodged from cars crashing into each other and left between the tracks when they hit the “post” – the cars the skate men had tied down with hand brakes to act as a buffer for cars that were assigned to that track.  

At night you had to avoid debris between the track, sometimes piles of rotting grain that had spilled from a “hopper” car, and try to jump on a moving car while carrying a lantern. On occasion they might be going too fast to safely board.  There was a workaround to this unsafe practice, but it involved cutting off the last 2 cars on a track that was about to be pulled to add to a train.  You could then stop the train as the track was being pulled, tie a brake down, uncouple the cars and radio to the engine that they could move forward again.  The downside for the railroad was that those two cars would have to be shipped a day later so in many cases this workaround was disallowed. 

Years after I left the railroad, they came up with another scary but cost cutting “innovation” – remote controlled engines.  Now in many places where there were once crews of 4 workers coupling and pulling tracks, there is now one person wearing a backpack that tells the engine to move forward or backward.  I have my doubts about the safety of this, but the actuaries the railroads hire must view the cost savings to be worth the cost of the occasional casualty.  Many industrial jobs have built-in hazards that cost fingers, arms, legs, and lives; most of those hazards could be reduced by either slowing down the pace of work, engineering safer procedures, having adequate staffing, and properly inspecting worksites.

These were the workplace conditions that rail workers faced in the past. Now imagine the latest innovation, Precision Scheduled Railroading (PSR).  This rationalization scheme turned ideas like timely and regular service upside down in an effort to maximize the amount of freight carried with the minimum number of people employed.  This has led to reductions in rail employment by 40% over the last 6 years.  Instead of trains leaving on a set schedule, they wait until they gather enough cars to have trains of 2 or more miles in length and consequently have few regularly scheduled jobs.  Press coverage of the potential strike focused on the issue of no sick days, which is certainly a travesty, but the inability to have a regular schedule and draconian attendance policies tipped the majority of rail workers to the breaking point.  

When I worked on the railroad, I had “yard seniority” which meant that my jobs, while they could start at any time, always ended in the same place as they started, and I could go home after work.  People who had “road seniority” never did the work of building up and taking apart trains, that was yard work.  Instead, they would get a train at point “A” and take it to point “B”.  Upon arriving at point B they would take themselves out of service and as a crew would be put at the bottom of the list of crews who had come from A and needed to return to A.  As trains headed back to the starting terminal, they would take crews at the top of the list and work their way down.  

In the yard we had a similar system called the “extra board”.  People on the extra board didn’t have seniority to hold  regularly scheduled jobs and they would be called to work under the same principle of “first in, first out”.  The difference was that roughly 85% of the work was regularly scheduled jobs and 15% extra board.  Those regularly scheduled jobs are almost all gone now and the majority of train crews and other crafts are called to work on an as needed basis.  A system that had some stability but was always subject to disruption was eroded to one in which no one has any idea if they will be working the next day or not.  If they are on the road, instead of going from A to B and back, sometimes they now go from A to B to C and then maybe back to A and there is even less predictability in schedules.  The distinction between road and yard work has largely disappeared so if there is extra time left in the 12 hours, they can be given more work to do.   It’s no wonder that workers I have listened to have on several occasions wondered why their spouses hadn’t divorced them.

Conditions for Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees (BMWE) are even worse, hard as that may be to believe.  The territories they cover can stretch to over 1,000 miles.  I have heard of crews based in Illinois scheduled to work for up to a couple of weeks as far away as Nevada!  They are expected to travel on their own, feed themselves, find lodging or not – all based upon compensation set in a 1990 ruling.  Raising the per diem was one of the few things that the Presidential Emergency Board (PEB) appointed by Biden actually agreed should be changed, which was naturally opposed by the carriers.  Conditions for all workers BMWE, SMART, and the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers (BLE) who are forced to lodge away from home range from company barracks mere yards away from the main line to fleabag motels.  I once was coerced into taking a road job to South Pekin, Illinois and I had to walk to a grocery store to find any food in an essentially rural area.  So, along with schedule precarity, comes a life as an itinerant worker sent hither and yon. 

Some statistics provide a sense of the trends in Rail.  In 1974 there were about 550,000 thousand unionized rail workers.  Today there are about 115,000.  After deregulation in 1980 (signed into law by Democrat Jimmy Carter) the number of class 1 railroads went from 33 to 7 today.  The amount of trackage of those 33 railroads shrunk from a little more than 200,000 to about 100,000 miles today.  The amount of freight that the class 1 railroads carried in 1980 to today measured in Ton-Miles (# of tons carried per mile) tripled.  Twenty percent of the employees of 1974 now do 3 times the amount of ton miles that were carried in 1980.  That is an incredible speedup and increase in productivity.  And yet the railroads who have spent 10’s of billions in stock buybacks in the last two years and made billions in profit during the pandemic can’t afford to give sick days to their employees.  No wonder workers in unions with conservative leaderships have pushed those unions to reject settlements that don’t address their needs.  A deep cynicism about their ability to strike and their unions’ unwillingness to prepare for such an eventuality led to lackluster bare majority approvals of a deal that they thought was fixed against them.

The recent train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio is eerily reminiscent of the derailment in  Lac-Magantic, Quebec, 9 years ago.  In Lac Magantic, a non-union short line railroad had crews consisting of a single engineer, and the engineer parked the train carrying highly explosive oil from the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota on a hill above the town.  Lack of crew members prevented the train from being properly secured and 47 people died when the train rolled down the hill, derailed, and exploded.  

RWU has done an incredible service in putting together a detailed account of the conditions that most likely resulted in the derailment of 50 cars, many of which were loaded with flammable and dangerous chemicals.  Under Precision Scheduled Railroading , the practice of railroads today is to build monster trains of 2 or more miles in length.  In my time, trains were about a mile long at most.  The RWU report, https://myemail.constantcontact.com/Special-Report–Monster-Train-Wreck-in-Ohio.html?soid=1116509035139&aid=fzMOujXbqBo, details how the train which was reported to be over 100 cars, was actually 150 cars and over 9,000 feet in length, i.e.almost 2 miles long.  On their trip from Illinois to the accident  site, they broke a knuckle.  This can be a pain in the ass or a disaster.  You must separate the cars which became uncoupled and then replace the over 50 lb. knuckle.  They speculate that the way the train was put together was the cause of the knuckle breaking as it had its heaviest loads at the rear of the train.  As trains speed up and slow down according to grade and track restrictions, the slack built into the coupling mechanism moves forward and back cushioning some cars with shiftable loads but leading to the heavier and slower to brake cars at the rear of the train to run into the front of the train causing the knuckle failure.  This is important as it was a warning sign of the unstable arrangement of loads in the train.

Most incredibly they have door cam footage taken as the train passed by what appears to be a car with its wheel on fire very close to the derailment site.  The train looks to be moving between 30-40 mph.  The wheel probably isn’t on fire, but it is probably either an older car without steel bearings, and older cars have oil filled boxes to lubricate the axles.  These were prone to overheat especially if the brake didn’t properly release which would cause friction and an increase in heat which could lead the wheel to break, causing a wreck.  The reduction in the number of car inspectors and in the time given to properly inspect each car leads to moving defective equipment.  In the not-so-good old days when there were cabooses, the hind end crew would watch the train as it pulled out of the yard and could catch sticky brakes and other mechanical problems.  No more.

The failure here is in many places.  There are too many cars, no proper balancing of the mass of the train proportionately, and a reduction in time to inspect each car leading to the failure to “bad order” a car and remove it from the train until it is fixed.  The length of the train itself is a factor in putting undue stress as it climbs, descends, slows, and speeds up.  Railroads claim that cabooses were redundant and that trackside monitoring devices can catch hot boxes or dragging equipment, but the efficacy of those devices depends on their number and maintenance.  The reduction in people working on the railroads and practices that prioritize cutting costs to deliver bigger profits create the conditions that can lead to disasters like this one.

Another endemic problem is the use of outdated technology in the infrastructure of the rail industry.  From antiquated cars still in service, the resistance of railroads to replace single walled tank cars with double walled, more puncture resistant car bodies, and the air braking system invented after the civil war.  The current braking system is initiated at the engine and applies the brakes on the cars one at a time starting at the head of the train and then moving back.  There is a better system called “electronic controlled pneumatic” brakes which can be applied across the entire train so it can slow down simultaneously across the entire train.  In 2014 a proposed rule to introduce such braking systems was vehemently opposed by the rail carriers as it would “impose tremendous costs without providing offsetting safety benefits.”  The one time I was in a caboose in a train that went into emergency braking both of us put our legs against the walls and waited for the impact as the end of the train ran into the stopped front end.  It was a demonstration of the dynamics of the momentum of loaded cars running into an applied braking force that would make for a nice physics problem, but was terrifying to experience.    

On the other hand railroads tout technology that they say eliminates the need for the thousands of rail workers they have laid off.  Trains now have engines not only at the front, but also sometimes in the middle and at the rear of the train which are remotely controlled.  They claim that track sensors, which are useful,  eliminate the need for observation of the train by crew members.  

We have to give credit to organizations like RWU and the rank-and-file caucus in the BMWE for organizing under very difficult conditions where there is little work stability.  They have been able to be effective spokespeople for the cause of labor on the railroads when the union leadership has been complacent at best and seem clueless on how to help foster the organization of rail workers fed up with terrible and unsafe working conditions.  They are the real leaders that deserve to be recognized. 


One response to “Railroad Working Conditions, Disasters, and Workers’ Organizing: Reflections of a former rail worker ”

  1. Bill Breihan Avatar
    Bill Breihan

    Outstanding survey of the challenges facing rail workers today. I worked as a switchman on the internal railroad of a steel mill in the early 1970s. I saw with my own eyes the horrendous safety conditions rail workers faced. One of my coworkers lost his life. I’ll never forget brother Harold Jenks. So much worse today. It is encouraging to see rail unionists fighting back.