Norfolk Southern is and has been hiring new freight conductors at a noteworthy rate in 2023. As the labor organization that represents newly hired conductors, that is great news to the SMART Transportation Division. But like most pieces of good news that come from the railroad, this one comes with a catch.
In this case, it is a very significant catch. The problem with NS hiring record numbers of new conductors is that this perennial Fortune 500 company has been operating without a Federal Railroad Administration-approved conductor certification training program for 21 months.
The FRA has been questioning NS about its conductor training program since October 2021. Since that time, NS has submitted multiple proposals for training programs to the FRA; however, all of them have fallen short of FRA’s expectations and have been denied.
On Wednesday, June 14, 2023, the clock ran out as FRA served notice to Norfolk Southern’s board of directors that they have 15 days to produce an acceptable plan for a conductor certification training program to them and an additional 30 days (a total of 45 days) to get the plan implemented.
FRA issued three findings it deemed to be unacceptable in the current methodology NS uses to train their new-hire conductors. In the order they sent to NS’s office in Atlanta, it listed each of the three unacceptable issues they found in their safety audit along with FRA-prescribed “corrective actions” that they state NS, “must take” within the 45 days they have been allotted. The findings/actions are as follows:
- Increasing the minimum time trainmen can be allotted for On the Job Training (OJT) from the current 13 days.
- FRA found a lack of a defined process for OJT, a lack of a process to track the progress of individual trainees, and a lack of on-property training coordinators to lead the OJT programs.
- FRA found a pattern of violations on NS’s part involving the company designating employees as “qualified instructors” of trainees without making any attempt to find out if the employees are qualified or willing to act as instructors.
The corrective actions that FRA is mandating NS take to address these issues are broad, potentially expensive and absolutely overdue. It should not be a surprise to a company in the rail industry that 13 days of OJT is not acceptable.
As part of the prescribed corrective action plan from FRA, Norfolk Southern is obligated to consult with “relevant employee labor organizations” as part of developing their plan before they submit it to FRA. SMART-TD has already been working with Norfolk Southern to enhance other quality-of-life issues for our members. NS has already reached out to our union leadership in an effort to include us in the effort to shore up their training program.
This is a responsibility your union takes very seriously. SMART-TD has every intention to work diligently in order to make sure NS’s new training curriculum will be thoughtfully designed and ensures that our new-hire conductors are equipped with the tools they need to be safe and productive members of our railroad family.
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