Photos by Ty O’Neil
Railroad workers and union supporters rallied Tuesday at the corner of Victorian Avenue and Pyramid Highway in Sparks — the “rail city” — to highlight the issues that many railroad workers are facing today.
Their three major issues are the need for increased safety through two-person crews, the effects of “precision scheduled railroading,” and the need for paid sick leave.
The gathering took place at the same time as a similar rally in Washington, D.C. where a federal hearing on Union Pacific’s use of embargoes was also taking place. The Federal Railway Administration on Wednesday will be holding another hearing on the proposed two-person train crew rule.
Gabriel Christenson, a policy leader for SMART Transportation Division in Nevada, shared details about the rally and why they were there.
“We’re out here trying to bring attention to the issues that we have as rail workers,” Christenson said. “Many people don’t know we work 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, and we have no paid sick leave at all.”
“We have the potential to lose our jobs if we take more than three days off in a 90-day period,” he added.
Most freight trains also have just two workers on board at any time – a conductor and an engineer.
Christenson said precision scheduled railroading (PSR) has also devastated the workforce, cutting about 30% of workers over the last several years,
PSR has become more popular since the COVID-19 pandemic and allows rail companies to reduce costs by operating on fixed schedules with point-to-point freight car movements and more simplified routes. Trucks are generally used for the last 100 miles of freight delivery.
Researchers at Northwestern University found that rail carriers were able to resist the logistics challenges that other parts of the supply chain encountered during the COVID-19 pandemic, with demand “exploding” in late 2020 and into 2021.
That trend is expected to continue. According to the Association of American Railroads, U.S. freight shipments will increase from 19.3 billion tons in 2020 to 24.1 billion tons in 2040.
“[It’s an effort to maximize profits for shareholders and corporations,” he said. “That’s why these draconian attendance policies are in effect to scare people for their jobs to continue working and not take time off.”
Officials with the Northern Nevada Central Labor Council in a statement released before the rally said rail barons are limiting the quantities of bulk products on which the public depends, driving up inflation on important consumer goods like food and gas.
“They are running massive trains,” Christenson said. “I’ve been a railroader for 19 years now and trains have doubled and tripled in size. We’re having three-mile long trains now that are rolling through our communities with extremely hazardous materials.”
Rail workers are hoping that President Biden will step in with an executive order to get the paid sick days they are fighting for. The U.S.Senate on Dec. 1 voted to put rail workers back to work by passing a bill to tie workers and rail companies to a contract settlement and avert a rail strike.