‘Unvarnished Feedback from the Front Lines’

Written by Steve Broady
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Norfolk Southern photo

Editor’s Note: The Surface Transportation Board is conducting an in-person hearing April 26-27 (EP 770, Urgent Issues in Freight Rail Service) with the CEOs of the “Big Four” Class I railroads—BNSF, CSX, Norfolk Southern and Union Pacific—on service problems.  Steve Broady, a Norfolk Southern locomotive engineer and local union official, sent this letter to STB Chairman Marty Oberman on April 21 as commentary for the hearing. It was entered into the Public Record by the STB Office of Proceedings on April 21. It is reproduced here in its entirety, with only minor edits. The opinions expressed here are those of Mr. Broady, not Railway Age. – William C. Vantuono

Dear Chairman Oberman; 

Thank you for holding this hearing concerning recent rail service problems and recovery efforts involving several Class I carriers and for the opportunity to comment. As an employee with 25 years of service with Norfolk Southern, 20 years operating locomotives, and 20 years as a local union officer, I would like to provide you and the Board members with some unvarnished feedback from the front lines of the nation’s supply chain crisis.

Some Problems and Concerns

As you are aware, collectively, the Class I railroads have shed about one-third or 45,000 employees from their payrolls over the past 5 years in their myopic attempt to attain a sub-60 operating ratio. They have also shed railroad-owned cars and locomotives as well as closed major hump classification yards on their respective systems under the guise of “Precision Scheduled Railroading.” Their mentality is to “sweat the [remaining] assets” and people, and do more with whatever is left. The railroads have claimed they needed to do this to remain competitive in the transportation marketplace, despite having many captive shippers with no other options. However, I view this entire PSR idea as akin to needing to remodel your kitchen, but burning your house down in the process, rebuilding it, and then boasting about your new kitchen. Along the way, the Class I railroads seem to have lost sight that they exist to serve customers, under a common-carrier obligation, and if they take care of and service their customers reliably and predictably, everything else will take care of itself. Every quarter, it seems we all read about record profits and record low operating ratios, built upon higher rates, more ancillary charges and lower volume. This model is unsustainable; employees and shippers are weary of the railroads’ excuses for poor service and promises that do not materialize, which affects the nation’s supply chain in a negative fashion.

During my 25 years, it used to be unheard of for a career railroader with 10-15-20 years of service to leave their careers. Now it is commonplace. Do the railroads know why people are leaving at an alarming rate and why they are having tremendous difficulty hiring and retaining new employees? I have read BNSF has experienced around 1,000 employees leaving their ranks, thanks to their new “Hi-Viz” attendance policy. Union Pacific has a similar punitive attendance policy in place. Various surveys published over the past three years have consistently ranked CSX, Norfolk Southern and Union Pacific among the worst places to work in America. This should raise alarm at the toxic workplace culture that is pervasive in the rail industry. It is also difficult to retain and attract employees when the carriers have collectively and openly stated they wish to diminish the number of conductors and regulate them to one mobile employee, responsible for several trains on a crew district, leaving the engineer as the sole occupant on a 2- or 3-mile-long train. This is a hot topic with labor and management embroiled in National Agreement negotiations that have plodded along for more than two years. Indeed, the railroads have to make the thankless, demanding, Train & Engine (T&E) service jobs more attractive to retain existing employees and prospective candidates.

With the closure of most of the nation’s hump classification yards during the shift to PSR, the classification of freight (removing cars from a train to be switched or classified, picking up cars for destinations further along the route, and the resulting switching those cars set out along the way,) occurs at yards built a century ago, not designed to handle today’s long freight trains. The railroads seem to have forgotten that the hump classification yard, implemented more than a century ago, was discovered to be the most efficient way to classify and switch cars by allowing gravity to do the majority of the work. The hump yards were given a black eye because of high dwell time. Conversely, long dwell times are a symptom of a faulty operating plan, where often only one train is originated between points A and B. If the carriers originated more than one train at a hump yard between A and B on a given day, dwell time is magically cut in half. The hump classification yards also functioned as epicenters for locomotive and car repair, as well as crew bases for train operating crews.

At Norfolk Southern and other railroads, they have combined what used to be two or three trains in to one gigantic train, with train lengths exceeding 15,000 feet. Simply put, the existing infrastructure was never designed for these massive trains. The result is, many trains wait their turn to perform work events, congesting the system around these remaining, smaller yards, occupying space on the main track(s). It is not uncommon for a crew to spend most of a 12-hour day waiting their turn to do their work, or waiting on an opposing train to clear the main track(s) so they can proceed. Often, trains do not make it to their destinations with one crew, so another crew is needed to relieve the original crew. Crews that used to easily traverse their assigned territories no longer do so with regularity. So, while the carriers may crow they are very productive with only two men on a 2- or 3-mile-long train, the reality is they are using more people in many cases over a given crew district between origin and destination. This methodology reduces train speed, velocity, asset and crew cycle times, and increases network congestion. These massive trains are often underpowered, and the crews are given just enough locomotives to crawl along at 10-15 miles per hour. As you are aware, many locomotives have been sold or stored, and many of those remaining have defects, but few repair personnel remain to service, fix, or maintain them. Often when one locomotive is defective, it throws the entire day’s operations in to a tailspin; there are often no reserve locomotives to substitute for it. At some of the local switching yards on my railroad, T&E employees have been told by their supervisor there is no time for a heat break or lunch period; they must keep moving outside all day to classify the volume of cars within the smaller, antiquated yards.

On a more granular level, railroads have often decided to reduce first-mile, last-mile service to their local customers due to their self-imposed crew and locomotive shortages. Before PSR, it was commonplace to have a three-man crew (an engineer, a conductor and a brakeman) on these local assignments that directly pulled and placed cars at industries. With the reduction in headcount, most of our customer-serving local trains are now staffed with only an engineer and a conductor. This in turn reduces the ability of each assignment to serve a given number of customers in a day; therefore, the number of times per week a customer can get service is also often reduced. Often, our local crews make daily calls to the local supervisor, the trainmaster, to determine which customers must be skipped because there simply isn’t enough time to work the customer(s) and return the train to its origin yard. On occasion, train crews are instructed to speak with the local supervisor so he or she can make up a failure reason code not attributable to the railroad. This often penalizes the customer with no service, additional delay and potential monetary charges when the crew is simply out of time to perform their work within their allotted 12 hours of duty.

I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention my colleagues who dispatch trains at the railroads’ centralized dispatching offices. While most do work a scheduled shift, with scheduled days off, their task load and size/route-miles of railroad they are responsible for keeping fluid has grown exponentially during the past decade. Consolidations of two or more territories into one has become commonplace, and the railroads are also struggling to hire and retain train dispatchers. While the carriers seek to implement artificial intelligence (often referred to as auto-router or movement planner) for some tasks, technology cannot replace institutional knowledge and thorough training.

Throughout the various traditional crafts in railroading, all of the tarriers have sought to implement their latest and greatest whiz-bang technology. While I acknowledge evolution and technology are inevitable and they do have their places and roles, the carriers often see technology as a way to force more workload upon the already strained workforce. Legions of clerks have been replaced by mobile train reporting phones and applications, and the remaining work has been foisted upon the operating crews as one example. Automated training from virtual car inspections to onboard systems that may operate the massive trains of today are all heralded as the future by the railroads. However, we must not lose sight that this is a people-driven industry. Pulling and placing cars at customers, switching cars and reporting them all requires people to perform these tasks, not solely technology.

Possible Solutions

Thankfully there are some solutions available to the aforementioned issues. If you asked any railroader what their biggest challenge is, more than 90% would probably respond that they have a desire to plan when they are going to work. If an employee knows when they are expected to report for duty, they will be rested and ready and have the ability to plan their life outside of the railroad. Thankfully, on NS, many assignments do have built-in off time or days, with the notable exception of “road/pool freight conductors.” However, one aspect where all railroads could improve their employee availability is more-accurate train lineups, their internal predictions of when trains will run and when employees can expect a call for work. Most T&E employees across the nation exist within a list of employees that cycle to work first-in, first-out, on call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. When you are at the top of the ever-rotating list, you are expecting a call to work. Employees who are registering off duty are placed at the bottom of the list, and progress toward the top as employees ahead of them are used to staff trains. Indeed, this arrangement has existed for more than a century, and it is a lazy and archaic methodology to staff trains.

Within the NS and CSX agreements with the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers & Trainmen is an under-utilized provision for “calling windows.” Simply stated, this is a window of time during which a crew, or a number of crews, may expect to be called to work during a designated 8-hour period. This could be widely implemented on these two railroads immediately if the railroads were willing to work with labor. The calling window can be implemented for a designated train or the first one, two, or three, etc., trains to originate at a designated location. It stands to reason that a precision scheduled railroad could anticipate the number of trains it plans to run and its staffing needs within a given 8-hour period. The benefit to the employees is a more-accurate schedule. The benefit to the carriers is it reduces the need for missed work because the employee has a resemblance of a schedule. Further, these calling windows are often viewed by labor as preferred assignments when compared to the massive rotating list of employees in regular and extra service that must anticipate a call any time within 24 hours of the day or night. The calling window provision within the aforementioned agreements may also entice new and existing employees to stay with the railroad as something to look forward to in the form of a better schedule they can also attain when they accumulate enough seniority to hold such an assignment.

Additionally, the draconian attendance policies at Union Pacific and BNSF must be addressed meaningfully between rail labor and management. These points-based systems are a “carrot and stick’ approach to discipline, but there are no carrots involved, only sticks. The board must ask the railroads why they refuse to [engage in a] dialogue and reach agreement with rail labor on attendance/availability concerns, yet implement unilateral policies that adversely affect the workforce. Most rail managers enjoy a set schedule, and there is no good reason the T&E employees cannot be afforded a similar lifestyle.

The Board would be well-served to collaborate with FRA in designating a minimum number of employees required upon trains that exceed a certain tonnage or length, and also consider mandating a minimum of two or more employees for trains transporting hazardous materials. The engineer and conductor exist together as a focused team, often operating in remote areas, as well as through urban city centers. Task overload is often commonplace, given the exacting demands of operating today’s massive trains. Reducing the number of on board personnel to one man is a public safety catastrophe waiting to happen. Again, the uncertainty of the long-term outlook for the role of and number of conductors needed surely plays a role in the retention and “on boarding” of conductors on all the Class I railroads.

All of the Class I railroads have boasted of their record profitability, record low operating ratios, and billions in stock buybacks over the past 5 or more years. Yet, at the negotiating table with rail labor, the railroads refuse to negotiate in good faith to achieve a National Agreement among the various operating crafts. The railroads have also given their verbal platitudes to their so-called critical/frontline/essential employees during the COVID-19 pandemic, but failed to monetarily reward them for their dedication. Further, the railroads are demanding at the bargaining table that their agreement employees be forced to pay more for their health insurance—which used to be at little to no cost to the employees 25 years ago. Rail labor asserts that the Class I carriers can easily afford not only competitive but generous general wage increases and afford reductions in employee expenses/contributions concerning health insurance. While it may be outside of the direct purview of the Board, I would encourage the Board to direct the nation’s railroads to get serious and realistic in their national negotiations with rail labor. The uncertainty of more than two years without an agreement and almost three years without a general wage increase has many railroaders uneasy about their future and looking for greener pastures in other employment. Obviously, these issues exacerbate the current hiring process and retention of career railroaders.

The Board could also consider requiring Class I railroads to stage a minimum number of stored-serviceable locomotives at various locations on their network. Such reserve locomotives should be easily available to be deployed when an inevitable locomotive failure arises. Additionally, perhaps the Board would also consider mandating a minimum number of employees to service and maintain their locomotives correlated to the number of locomotives on their systems. Similarly, the ranks of car inspectors have also been slashed along with the reduction in cars on line. These highly trained car inspectors provide the thorough and detailed inspections needed to ensure safe and reliable movement of cars. Their specific training goes beyond what defects a typical conductor is tasked with finding.

In closing, I’d like to thank you and the Board for considering my observations and suggestions from a career railroader. The Class I railroads have collectively lost sight of their reason for existence: their customers. They have been blinded by their myopic desire to please only their shareholders and Wall Street. All of the record profits, record-low operating ratios and gains have been realized upon the backs of rail labor on the front lines of a nation-wide shipping crisis. Indeed, they have self-inflicted their current predicament with drastic cuts of people and assets, all in the name of corporate greed. However, I really believe all of rail labor is still willing and able to help the carriers get on the right track. We are the people that do the work on the front lines every day. We see the both the problems and potential solutions. The solutions require honest and good-faith bargaining and open, honest, respectful dialogue. Our futures are intertwined, and it is in our collective interests to work together to make the railroads a better place to work long-term and serve our customers and keep the nation’s freight moving to the best of our abilities.

Respectfully submitted,

Steve Broady, Locomotive Engineer, Norfolk Southern Railroad, Greensboro, N.C.

Editor’s Comment: Another Steve Broady, Joseph Andrew “Steve” Broady, was the locomotive engineer on NS predecessor Southern Railway’s Mail Train 97, which wrecked in 1903 as the result of an overspeed condition, killing him and 10 others. The wreck was immortalized in the famous country-western ballad, “The Wreck of Ol’ 97.” Is NS engineer Steve Broady, the author of this piece, a descendant? In any case, here’s a bit of Southern Railway History, from the Tarheel Press:

“ … It’s a mighty rough road ’tween Lynchburg & Danville and lined on a three-mile grade; It was on that hill that he lost his airbrakes, you see what a jump he made ….” So says the song “The Wreck of Ol’ 97”, a  ballad that is considered the first modern country-western song by music historians. The lore itself is one of the cornerstones that make up the history of the famed Southern Railway.  The photo above was taken on Monday, September 28, 1903, one day after the famed mail train leaped off Stillhouse Trestle and into immortality. Eleven men were killed that fateful day. Engineer Broady’s body was found in the creek bed between the locomotive and retaining wall, while the firemen was found between the engine and trestle.  Of the eleven men killed, five were railroad men and six were Postal workers.

Engineer Joseph Andrew “Steve” Broady (pictured) was the engineer on what various songwriters have characterized as the “fastest mail train that ever run on the Southern Railroad.” Broady was a 33-year old “boomer” who had previously worked for the Seaboard Air Line and the Norfolk & Western. Such experience was necessary for his job, as Mail Train 97 was indeed the pride of the railroad, with service between Washington, D.C. and Atlanta. Service for the train was inaugurated on Nov. 2, 1902 and was not quite a year old when the tragedy occurred. Train number 97 was paid handsomely by Congress, to the tune of a $140,000 annual contract; however, the railroad was penalized a substantial sum of money for each minute that the mail arrived into Atlanta late.

The train averaged 40 miles an hour, including stops, along its southern route, which is all the more impressive considering the main line at the time was still a single-track route comprised of fairly light 85-pound rail. Engine 1102, a 4-6-0 Ten Wheeler, was on the point of the doomed train. She was a Class F-14 locomotive, bought new from Baldwin Locomotive Works in 1903. After the wreck, she was rebuilt and served on the line for 32 more years. The engine was scrapped on July 9, 1935, at the Princeton Shop.

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