A US Freight Rail Crisis Threatens More Supply-Chain Chaos

Unions have also disputed how railroads have used new automated emergency braking systems mandated by Congress to justify plans to remove drivers from trains, which would leave the engineer the only human in charge of up to 3 miles of wagons moving up to 70 miles per year. hours. Although the new braking system automatically stops a train if it passes a signal, rail unions argue it does not replace a second set of hands and eyes on a long vehicle that sometimes carries hazardous material.

Unions often point to a 2013 rail disaster in Quebec in which a lone engineer failed to properly secure a train before alighting, and it rolled down a hill, killing 47 people and destroying most of the city center. Afterwards, the government of Canada passed a law that required crews of two people; Last month, the US Federal Railroad Administration proposed its own rule to do the same, which the railroad association opposes.

The unpredictable schedules required by railroad companies often lead to sleep deprivation and poor health, making individual shifts dangerous, says Jordan Boone, director of BNSF and legislative representative for the transportation division of the International Sheet Metal Association , air, rail and transport. Workers (SMART-TD). “It’s not a sustainable lifestyle, to be alone on these trains,” he says. Also, “if something happens, it could take hours for someone to get to you because we operate in very remote locations.”

Greener option

Trade associations, including those in the grain and chemical industries, say one of the underlying causes of the rail crisis is a lack of competition. The number of major freight railroads has dwindled over the years, and in some areas customers are captive to a single line. In Congress, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee is considering a bill that would create incentives for better service. The railroad association opposes the bill. The STB is also considering rule changes that would increase competition.

Greg Regan, of the TTD coalition of transport unions, says the railways deserve more than just business reasons, because they are more environmentally friendly and cost-effective than alternatives such as trucks. “Railways should be a growth sector,” he says. “That’s not happening right now, in part because the only focus on the corporate side is quarterly shareholder returns, not long-term growth and what’s ultimately best for our country.”

The American Chemistry Council’s Sloan says rail freight problems could also hamper attempts to boost semiconductor production in the United States. The CHIPS Act, a funding package approved last month, is expected to spur new business for chemical companies that produce chip components. “If you want to make more things in America, like semiconductors,” says Sloan, “you have to be able to move them.” The recently signed climate bill in the US links tax credits for electric vehicles with a requirement to process battery materials domestically, a reshaping of supply chains that could also depend on trains.

Unions and rail companies now have two weeks to consider the Presidential Emergency Board’s recommendations and reach an agreement before a possible strike. The board essentially split each side’s proposal down the middle, suggesting a series of raises equivalent to 24 percent over five years and asking employees to pay more for health insurance. The rail association indicated its willingness to accept the recommendations, but labor groups have expressed disappointment, with some saying the board’s recommendations did not go far enough, in part because they did not address working hours intense

After two years of supply chain woes, businesses and consumers may be about to get a fresh demonstration of what happens when a transportation network that’s often taken for granted grinds to a halt. Transportation consultant Larry Gross says pandemic delays and the ongoing rail freight crisis are a reminder that an increasingly disaster-prone world demands tougher transportation networks. “These kinds of mega-disruptions are happening much more often than they used to,” he says. “The system needs to change to be a little more resilient and a little more flexible than it was before.”

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