What a rail strike could mean for you (and the economy)

“Tens of thousands of freight rail workers are prepared to go on strike on Friday at 12:01 am, which could have wide-ranging effects across the economy. It’s already causing some disruptions for rail passengers, freight companies, and others.

The cause is a dispute between the freight industry and the workers who make it run.

Most of the 12 unions representing the workers have already agreed to a proposal put together by a presidential emergency board established by the White House over the summer to try to help resolve the dispute. The proposal includes a 24 percent increase in wages for workers by 2024, but many workers have complained that it fails to address leave, on-call scheduling, and poor working conditions.

The holdout unions’ position is that pay increases aren’t enough to make up for some real downsides — and dangerous aspects — of the job.

The two most powerful unions involved in the negotiations, which represent engineers and conductors, are continuing to resist the proposal, putting both sides in a deadlock. If workers do go on the strike they appear to be hurtling toward, it would be the first such strike in 30 years.”

“If a freight strike were to occur — and especially if it’s long-lasting — it could have disastrous effects across an already fragile economy still reeling from supply chain disruptions and inflation.

“Rail moves a lot of the foundational, basic goods that we don’t think about day-to-day,” said Rachel Premack, editorial director at FreightWaves, which covers supply chains. “They’ll move sand and gravel that would then be crushed into concrete for roads or for laying home foundations. Railroads move the chemicals used to purify water or to compromise fertilizer for crops, soybeans that could become food for humans or [animals] that are then food for humans. It’s a lot of early-chain-type goods.”

Many passenger trains also run on freight rails, and their service could be suspended. Amtrak has already warned of potential disruptions and canceled cross-country trains in anticipation of a strike, though so far its Northeast service will not be affected.”

“Replacing freight with other forms of transportation is not easy if workers do walk out. Mike Steenhoek, executive director of the Soy Transportation Coalition, told Vox in an interview that one train has the freight capacity of 400 semi-trucks. “I don’t know of a shipper who just has 400 semis sitting in a garage ready to be accessed,” he said. He noted that for agriculture, the timing couldn’t be worse because of harvest season, adding more urgency for a deal.”

“Under the Railway Labor Act, Congress has the ability to block or end a rail strike. Since 1963, it has passed legislation more than 10 times to intervene in rail disputes.

So far, though, Democratic leaders have been reluctant to commit to doing so, while Republicans have been eager to pressure workers into agreeing to the terms set by the presidential emergency board.

If Congress were to intervene, there are a few routes lawmakers could take. They could require the unions and carriers to accept the presidential emergency board’s conditions, which included a pay increase but no acknowledgment of other demands like sick leave. They could extend the existing cooling-off period so both sides have more time to negotiate. Or they could turn the talks over to independent arbitrators who would be tasked with finding a resolution.

For now, congressional Democrats are waiting to see what might come out of the talks the Labor Department is leading between unions and railroad carriers on Wednesday before they lay out a policy response.”

How Many Union Members Does It Take To Operate a Train?

“Labor unions such as the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers have been lobbying federal regulators to mandate that all freight trains operate with two-person crews in the cab. That’s long been the standard industry practice for safety reasons. The engineer drives the train, while the rail conductor handles equipment inspections and monitors track signals. Unions worry that advanced automation will allow railroads to run safely without a second person in the engine—and they want the government to step in to protect those jobs.

This dreaded automation is indeed occurring. All major rail systems in the U.S. now use positive train control (PTC), essentially a computer-based override system that monitors speed and track signals to avert collisions. The adoption of PTC—mandated by Congress since 2008—has helped dramatically reduce rail accidents. Data from the Association of American Railroads (AAR), an industry group, show accidents are down 30 percent since 2000, while employee injuries have fallen by more than 40 percent. Railroading is safer now than it has ever been, in large part due to those technological advances.

With PTC systems handling many of the in-cab duties that were formerly the rail conductor’s responsibility, railroads are seeking to reassign some of those workers. Because rail conductors typically do equipment inspections and perform other duties before trains depart from rail yards and after they return, some will continue to work in that capacity. But any changes to the employment structure have to be approved as part of collective bargaining.”

“without clear and convincing evidence that two-person crews are necessary for trains to operate safety—and with PTC doing a better job of preventing accidents than humans used to—there’s no compelling reason for the government to get involved in this dispute. Private railroads and unions can make their own arrangements.

If Biden needs more convincing, he should check in with his beloved Amtrak. The government-run passenger rail system dropped its own two-people-in-the-cab mandate back in the 1980s.”

Senate Republicans and Democrats Agree To Double Amtrak’s Funding

“An influx of additional funding would allow Amtrak to eliminate this backlog and pave the way for faster, more frequent service, passenger rail proponents argue. “There’s so much we can do, and it’s the biggest bang for the buck we can expend,” said Biden about increasing Amtrak funding back in April.

Nevertheless, one of the reasons that Amtrak’s maintenance backlog is so big in dollar terms is that it’s incredibly inefficient at spending the money it does get.

At current costs, Amtrak needs to spend $90 million per mile “merely to keep the same service as exists today,” wrote the Manhattan Institute’s Connor Harris in an April New York Post column. “For comparison, in countries such as France and Spain, less than half that cost per mile would cover a brand-new high-speed rail line good for speeds of more than 200 miles per hour.”

Getting Amtrak’s costs down to European levels would allow it to fix a lot more of its infrastructure for a lot less money. Lawmakers of both parties instead appear set on simply shoveling more taxpayer money at the inefficient agency.”

Joe Biden Says Trains Will Soon Be Almost as Fast as Planes. That’s Ridiculous.

“the fastest speed that a train has ever achieved—not while carrying passengers, mind you, but just as an experiment—is 357 mph. Over long distances, while carrying passengers and making stops at stations, the world’s speediest train is China’s Beijing to Nanjing line, which runs at slightly less than 200 mph.

Meanwhile, the average speed of a commercial jet in the United States is about 500 mph.

That’s not even close to being an apples-to-apples comparison. After all, planes carrying passengers used to routinely break the sound barrier (roughly 760 mph, though it varies based on atmospheric conditions), and experimental aircraft have gone far faster. Still, the world’s fastest train still finishes a distant second when matched up against an average, boring Boeing 737.”