Six out of the seven Class I freight railroads in operating in the U.S. (including CN’s and Canadian Pacific’s subsidiaries) have implemented or are in the process of transitioning to Precision Scheduled Railroading (PSR). While programs and processes will certainly vary from one railroad to another, all are likely designed around five foundation principles, as defined in 2016 by CP and the late Hunter Harrison during its aborted merger attempt with Norfolk Southern.
“THE FIVE FOUNDATIONS OF PRECISION RAILROADING
“1. IMPROVING CUSTOMER SERVICE
“2. CONTROLLING COSTS
“3. OPTIMIZING ASSET UTILIZATION
“4. OPERATING SAFELY
“5. VALUING AND DEVELOPING EMPLOYEES
“These five foundations can be applied to any railroad with the same result: more-efficient operations across the network, better returns for shareholders and improved safety for employees and communities.”
There have been numerous reports of how PSR operational changes have resulted in controlling costs and helped to optimize asset utilization. Operating ratios have reached record lows, and yard and siding tracks are filled with moth-balled locomotives and railcars of all types. These changes have clearly benefited railroad management and railroad shareholders. But, once again, based on government and media reporting, customer service has, in far too many cases, suffered.
What about operating safely, and valuing and developing employees?
Based on an informal survey I conducted on a railroad worker Facebook group, any hope that PSR would improve operational safety or their quality of life has been dashed by furloughs, monster-sized trains, increasing hours-of-service tie-ups, longer stays at away-from-home terminals and more workplace chaos:
Granted, this is a small sample size (42 railroad workers) , but I look at it like the canary in the coal mine—a sign that employees are feeling the pain of PSR, rather than the gains.
Sir Richard Branson, a wildly success businessman, had this to say about employees: “Clients do not come first. Employees come first. If you take care of your employees, they will take care of the clients.”
What about the long-term consequences on public safety as a result of monster trains operating through communities? Are 150-plus-car trains, with distributed power, more prone to derailment or mechanical failures? What are the implications for people and businesses that reside in close proximity to railroad tracks? What happens when a monster train experiences a mechanical breakdown and blocks one or more public grade crossings? How long would it take the conductor on a two-person train crew to walk a two-mile-long train, find the problem that brought the train to a stop, then do what needs to be done to fix the problem? One hour? Two hours?. It depends on the problem, walking conditions, time of day, weather, age and fitness of the conductor, etc. What about emergency services—police, fire, medical? How are emergency responders going to reach those in distress, if vital grade crossings are blocked by stalled trains?
These are valid public and railroad worker safety concerns. Has railroad management given thoughtful consideration to these and other potential safety risks associated with PSR? What are their contingency plans for ensuring the PSR will improve workplace and public safety, rather than put one or both at greater risk? What roles, if any, do the Surface Transportation Board (STB) and the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) have, as railroads transition to PSR?
Once again, it is public knowledge that dozens, if not hundreds, of shippers and other railroad industry stakeholders have filed petitions with the STB over service-related concerns. What will the STB do to address these concerns? It is less clear if FRA is doing anything, proactively, to ensure that PSR implementations include consideration and mitigation of all attendant safety risks, or if they are sitting on the sidelines, assuming that the railroads will have comprehensive risk mitigation plans and strategies in place.
A key-word search of the FRA website, using “Precision Scheduled Railroad” and “PSR” yielded no results. It seems FRA would have something on its website about PSR, if it were proactively involved, seeking to protect the public and rail workers from PSR-related safety risks.
Bottom line, railroad management appears to have an almost unrestricted right to implement PSR in a manner that optimizes equipment utilization and controls costs—and that benefits only one or two rail stakeholder groups.
It is a mistake, I believe, to leave other stakeholder groups—employees, the public, shippers and receivers—hoping that they too will soon, or eventually, reap safety, quality of life and improved service benefits from Precision Scheduled Railroading.
William C. Keppen Jr., a retired BLET (Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen) Vice President and third-generation locomotive engineer at BNSF and predecessors Chicago, Burlington & Quincy and Burlington Northern, is an independent transportation advocate with experience in fatigue countermeasures programs. A railroad industry veteran of almost 50 years, Keppen provides safety analyses for Confidential Close Call Reporting System (C3RS) programs in freight, commuter, and light rail transportation. Keppen was Project Coordinator for BNSF’s Fatigue Countermeasures Program, and former BLE General Chairman for the BN Northlines GCA. “I started working on human-factor-caused train accidents in 1980,” he says. “It has been a struggle. I would like to think I have made a difference, but there are still far to many human-factor-caused train ‘accidents,’ which I prefer to refer to as ‘preventable incidents.’”