Fast train a-comin’
Families of engineers charge Union Pacific overworks employees just as trains begin speeding up through Chico
On Friday, Dec. 13, a petition charging that Union Pacific Railroad places “unrealistic demands on employees” that “do not ensure public safety of safe delivery of essential customer freight” was handed to two U.S. senators. Two days later UP raised its freight train speed limits through Chico to 55 miles per hour. Next month they’ll be allowed to pass through at a blazing 70 mph.
The petition was circulated by UP employees’ family members who call themselves RRESQ (for Railroad Employee Safety and Quality). The group is based in St. Louis, Mo., but has a California chapter in Roseville, the regional headquarters for UP.
Peggy Schrum, a spokeswoman out of St. Louis for RRESQ, says the organization has come together because the unions that represent the train employees, like many other trade unions across the country, have seen their power and influence erode since the 1980s.
“Ronald Reagan stripped away the ability of the [railroad] unions to strike unless there is a major issue,” Schrum said. “Otherwise matters are settled with arbitration orders and the workers have to go back to work. Without the threat of a strike, they have no leverage.”
The petition says that UP does not have enough workers to meet traffic demands and therefore employees are forced “to endure severe exhaustion, health deterioration and loss of quality of life.”
“Employees can be forced to work 12- to 15-hour shifts in non-air-conditioned locomotives when the outside heat index can be in excess of 100 degrees,” the petition reads. “Railroad employees can be required to work up to 432 hours a month. In contrast, pilots by federal law are restricted to 100 and truckers to 260 hours per month.”
Schrum charges that UP is driving up its earnings, and thereby the value of its stock, by shortcutting maintenance and manpower. The company, she said, is preparing a substantial stock sell-off in January.
Mike Furtney, a San Francisco-based spokesman for UP, accused Schrum of making false accusations. “The idea that any company in this market can control its stock prices is ridiculous,” he said.
On Oct. 24, Union Pacific CEO Dick Davidson announced the rail company had just posted an all-time record net income of $437 million, compared to $267 million the year before.
“Union Pacific combined record revenues with all-time productivity levels to produce great results,” Davidson told shareholders. “We achieved double-digit growth in earnings per share for the fourth straight quarter. This trend is further proof that our business strategy is on target.
“We have been facing some challenges in the wake of the port disruption,” he added, referring to last fall’s West Coast dockworkers’ shutout. “Fortunately, our strong rail franchise gives us the revenue diversity and network flexibility to rebound rapidly. We remain focused on reducing costs and improving service as we work to meet Union Pacific’s commitment to our customers and shareholders.”
The RRESQ petition says that, by its own admission, UP has continued since 1998, the year it merged with Southern Pacific, to operate with insufficient manpower.
“They have not invested in technology that would improve train scheduling,” the petition reads. “They have cut corners on track repair, signaling-system upgrades and routine but essential maintenance.”
Furtney said he had never heard of Schrum’s organization and pointed out that the workers are already represented by unions and the Federal Railroad Association.
“Plus there is a telephone number [employees] can call with complaints,” he said. “It’s anonymous; they don’t have to leave a name or anything.”
Furtney said the speed increase is needed to “improve the ability of Union Pacific to deliver goods for its customers.” The company’s main competition, he said, is the trucking industry.
In 1998 Union Pacific was investigated by the Federal Railroad Association following a string of accidents that killed nine employees. The FRA found that UP was operating at short-staffed levels and in response mandated a hiring plan.
"[Union Pacific] hired a bunch of workers and then laid them off soon after,” Schrum said. “Since 1998, they have quietly violated labor agreements as traffic has increased substantially. In the last few years they have worked employees to exhaustion. And the unions are no good to fight UP.”
So in September, Schrum said, about 60 people in the St. Louis area got together and formed RRESQ and soon began gathering 1,300 signatures for the petition they presented to Senators Earnest Hollings and John McCain, who both sit on the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.
Union Pacific, Schrum said, has recently installed a computer system to identify which employees have been absent during work periods. The program identifies about 1 percent, or 250, of Union Pacific employees.
“This selection criterion is capricious and arbitrary and flies in the face of national agreements between the carrier and labor organization,” RRESQ charges. “It gives no basis for investigation other than the employee who falls at the bottom of the list regardless of their availability percentage.”
The practice, she said, is a tactic to intimidate employees. “In my husband’s 29 years with the railroad, he’s never been investigated for anything,” she said. “Now he faces this.”
Schrum was surprised when she learned the trains will soon be allowed to pass through Chico at 70. “I didn’t know freight trains could even go that fast,” she said. “They are trying to drive up their stock prices and making cuts at every level. They are killing these guys. Do you want these guys going 70 miles per hour through your town, asleep at the wheel?”
Schrum said several years ago, in the wake of the 1998 train accidents, a group calling itself “WAR” (Women Against Railroads) formed in Nebraska.
“They held a meeting and Union Pacific showed up and appeased the situation," she said. "We didn’t want to call ourselves WAR because we want to be careful about protesting Union Pacific. This is our bread and butter."