Railroad workers lose jobs
Coal-industry woes also taking a toll on Union Pacific
Thursday, February 25, 2016
Union Pacific Railroad completed its latest round of furloughs in Grand Junction this week, leaving much of its crew charged with inspecting and maintaining locomotives and rail cars without paychecks.
According to Carl Smith, the SMART United Transportation Union’s Colorado legislative director, the cuts are the latest of many that have come in the last year. His organization represents some of the employees who have been furloughed by Union Pacific, and he said at least 147 workers have been furloughed in the state since July 2015. Most of those cuts have centered on two groups of workers — the operating crews who run the locomotives, including engineers, conductors, brakemen and switchmen; and employees charged with maintaining safety, such as mechanics, according to Smith. This latest round involved Union Pacific’s roundhouse, where locomotives are serviced, which is closing in Grand Junction because the majority of the employees no longer have jobs, Smith said.
Union Pacific spokeswoman Calli Hite declined to confirm the number of affected Grand Junction crews, but wrote in an email to The Daily Sentinel, “Union Pacific did have layoffs in Grand Junction this week and currently has about 4,100 employees across its 23-state system on furlough. This is part of the company’s effort to align resources with demand.”
“Our business volumes are down versus last year in all categories except autos, with coal down the most,” Hite wrote.
The furloughs stem in particular from a slowdown in the energy industry, especially reduced coal shipments, and a generally soft shipping industry nationwide. Furloughed employees maintain seniority rights and have priority for being re-hired before other applicants, according to collective bargaining agreements.
For 2015, the railroad’s freight revenue was $20.4 billion, down 10 percent from 2014, while operating revenues income of $8.1 billion was down 8 percent from the previous year.
The slip in revenues came despite a 38 percent decrease in fuel prices, the company noted in a news release summarizing the company’s financial position. While low fuel prices have helped reduce costs for railroads, cheap diesel has also provided competition from the trucking industry, which competes for long-haul freight business.
Nationwide, Union Pacific has about 1,500 locomotives in storage, Hite said, evidence that their demand has decreased significantly. Some of those locomotives have been sitting in the railyard along Riverside Parkway for nearly a year.
“It’s scary,” Smith said. “There’s so little business left, and the railroad put all their eggs in one basket many years ago when coal was king, and now the environmental situation has changed. In the meantime the railroad, we feel, let their other business flounder because they didn’t want to delay (the shipping of) coal.”
Smith said the elimination of mechanics charged with inspecting trains is a concern for workers and the public.
“Federal law requires a daily inspection of every locomotive every day,” he said, adding that a monthly inspection and a quarterly inspection is also required. With the roundhouse closing, those locomotives have farther to travel for inspections, or Smith said he thinks the railroad will ask their remaining employees to take on those duties.
“That’s what they’re trying to do, have the engineers and conductors take on more responsibility of inspecting cars, even though they’ve had very little training,” he said. “We don’t have the skills or the knowledge to repair those.”
Most of the employees left working out of the Grand Junction yard have seniority, which allowed them to escape previous furloughs, Smith said.
“They’re probably within five years of retirement or less,” he said. “They’re hanging on and just hoping the terminal survives long enough to make it to retirement.”
Furloughs and layoffs have spurred proposed legislation requiring trains to maintain crews of more than one person, because of the fear that cuts will extend even further.
The Colorado House of Representatives’ Transportation and Energy Committee passed House Bill 1136 on Thursday, mandating that two-person crews operate freight and passenger trains within the state. Sponsored by Rep. Daneya Esgar, D-Pueblo, the purpose of the bill is to “ensure the public safety of Colorado’s citizens and the safety of its waterways and natural environment,” according to the bill. Potential consequences include fines up to $10,000 for multiple violations.
Ultimately, cutting railroad jobs hurts rural communities, Smith said.
“Railroad jobs in Colorado are good rural jobs. My members, they are the people in rural Colorado. We make a good living, we’re the people who contribute to our community. What jobs are left?”