House T&I Discusses Workforce, Safety, and Service Challenges Impacting Freight Rail Supply Chain

The House Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials held a hearing on May 11 to discuss the rail supply chain resilience and associated challenges. Five witnesses testified for the hearing.

  • Chuck Baker, President and CEO, American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association (ASLRRA) | Written Testimony
  • Chris Jahn, President and CEO, American Chemistry Council (ACC) | Written Testimony
  • Ian Jefferies, President and CEO, Association of American Railroads (AAR) | Written Testimony
  • Greg Regan, President, Transportation Trades Department (TTD), AFL-CIO | Written Testimony
  • Marc Scribner, Senior Transportation Policy Analyst, Reason Foundation | Written Testimony

In his opening statement, Chairman Troy Nehls (R-TX) said that the Biden Administration’s policies, such as vaccine mandates, government transfer programs (which incentivized people not to work) and the infrastructure law (which prioritizes green investments over adding new capacity) impacted the supply chain. He highlighted the importance of the freight rail industry, which carries one-third of the total freight volume, to the country’s economy and centered the hearing on supply chain challenges impacting freight railroads and the ongoing efforts to address the issue.

The ensuing discussion among witnesses and the members of the subcommittee touched upon four key themes:

Workforce: Rep. Donald M. Payne (D-NJ), Subcommittee Ranking Member, said that, for the last decade, railroad workers have been asked to do more with less as the freight rail workforce reduced by a third since 2015. He said that the Freight Rail Workforce Health and Safety Act that he introduced guarantees 7 paid sick days for all freight rail workers.

Rep. Payne asked Greg Regan to elaborate on freight rail worker issues. Regan said that the drastic reduction of workforce has had impacts on individual workers, who are required to be on call constantly and can’t access the granted leave as per their contracts. He said that these quality-of-life issues contributed to the labor fight last year despite the largest pay increase for rail workers in the last 45 years. “It goes on to tell you how bad the morale is,” he said.

Ian Jefferies from AAR said that building workforce resiliency is the primary theme across railroads to more easily manage economic ups and downs and that post-pandemic hiring is continuing and is the highest it has been in over 3 years.

Safety: Jefferies emphasized that rail is by far the safest mode to move goods, especially hazardous materials, he said that railroads are continuing to take more action to improve safety by installing wayside detectors, lowering alert thresholds, and developing next-generation technologies to reduce risk in the system. He also said that they are undertaking rigorous maintenance, highlighting the fact that capital spending as a percent of revenue was 18.4% in past 10 years (6 times that of an avg. U.S. manufacturer).

Length of trains: Rep. Payne (D-NJ) said that trains are too lengthy, creating hurdles for emergency responders that are cut off from people who need them. Rep. Rick Larsen (D-WA) Ranking Member of the full Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, questioned Regan on train length and the complication for employees to handle lengthy trains. To that, Regan said that long trains are increasingly a problem from their members’ perspective. As trains are staffed with only one engineer and one conductor, in case of a problem on the train, the staff are required to walk the entire 3–4-mile length to identify the problem. Further, he said that there are no sidings to accommodate large trains.

Rep. Seth Moulton (D-MA) spoke about a common informal practice among railroads to limit the length of train carrying hazmat to 100 cars. He asked Jefferies about how difficult it is for railroad to comply to a potential regulation of capping hazmat train length to 7500 ft. Jefferies said that they are willing to collaborate as long as the regulations are evidence-based and data-driven.

Rail Service: Rep. Payne spoke about the Freight Rail Shipping Fair Market Act, which puts shippers and railroads on a level playing field by clarifying service delivery standards. Rep. Larsen said that the railroads relied on congestion embargoes to compensate for having to cut their own workforce. He urged railroads to focus on the customers, communities that pass through, and their employees.

Chris Jahn said that the chemistry industry is at the headwaters of the manufacturing economy and that any disruption to it can impact other industries. He said that, in a recent supply chain survey of its members, 83 percent of companies reported that conditions remained worse than they were prior to the pandemic despite the recent progress. He expressed hope that Congress can help address the persistent supply chain problems that undermine that utility and effectiveness of transportation system.

To Rep. Brian Babin (R-TX)’s question about supply chain disruptions, Jahn said that the impacts of embargoes on the supply chain are huge. He said that embargos, which were meant for dealing with weather-related events, are being used by railroads to deal with congestion on the network. Such disruptions are making it hard for their members to compete against global competitors, especially Chinese manufacturers.

Rep. Thomas H. Kean (R-NJ) spoke about the criticality of freight rail lines for carrying construction materials and asked Jefferies about what the industry is doing to reduce service disruptions and delays that can hamper critical construction projects. To that, Jefferies said that they are making investments to build and support a network to move goods timely, working to source adequate workforce, and making sure that regulatory structure encourages innovation and use of technology.

Public Policy: Jefferies cautioned that policies emanating from the Congress, DOTs, and STB should be evidence- and data-based and help further the goals set out by them.

Chuck Baker also said that regulations should allow room for innovation and progress. He specifically spotlighted the CRISI program by calling it a win-win for the supply chain and the short line rail safety and requested that FRA should increase the funding under the program. He also suggested that there should not be any effort to increase truck size or weights as it would divert more freight to roadways, worsening highway congestion air pollution, and safety incidents.

Marc Scribner said that, as trucks are increasingly developing and testing automation technologies, it would be important for the rail sector to develop automation technologies to be able to compete with trucks. He cautioned that, if freight shifts from rail to trucks, it will lead to increased negative environmental, safety, and air quality outcomes.

Greg Regan said that safety and service issues are directly connected and are the result of management decisions and pointed to the need for Congressional intervention to reform the industry. He pointed to safety, workforce, and service issues and said that it will take action from Congress, federal regulators, and railroads themselves to resolve these issues.

Jahn urged that STB should finalize the reciprocal switching reform, which he said will provide shippers greater access to a competitive rail service.

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