For decades, Warren Buffett has reigned as one of the most-recognizable brands in American business. He leads BNSF’s parent company, Berkshire Hathaway Inc., and his decisions play a large role in the direction of the rail industry.

Buffett and Berkshire’s reach extends into industries all over the globe. It influences many common U.S. business sectors, from insurance, real estate, and the energy sector down to jewelry stores and the groceries we buy labeled Kraft or Heinz.

It is easy to understand why the alleged “Oracle of Omaha” and his annual letter to investors is widely read. His words are embraced by the owning class, who dream of hoarding even a fraction of Buffett’s great fortune. This year, Buffett complained in great detail about BNSF as well as railroading in general.

First and foremost, Buffett expressed his disappointment that BNSF’s revenue and profits fell last year. He also noted that our new contract provided raises that were “far beyond the country’s inflation goals.”

Nobody in the SMART Transportation Division is regularly found in Forbes or Fortune magazine. Still, our interpretation of his letter is that, in his billionaire opinion, the raises our members earned in the 2022 National Agreement were “too much” and that what it did to Berkshire Hathaway’s stockholders was “disappointing” because they — the ownership — deserved more.

Let’s be crystal clear, his statement never stated that BNSF lost money. His disappointment is that an overdue raise for the people who actually do the work cut into the obscene amount of profit they wanted to make. The 92-year-old billionaire, sadly, did not make as much off workers’ backs as predicted.

SMART-TD will not apologize to Buffett or anyone else on Wall Street for our men and women getting paid what they have rightfully earned while keeping this nation’s economy humming.

He went on to describe how BNSF’s profit margins have fallen relative to the other Class I railroads and promised that these “margin comparisons can and should improve.”

Maybe that’s why he decided to have BNSF cut the jobs of maintenance workers, pipe fitters and other unionized workers across the railroad. These men and women many with mouths to feed, were shown the door the VERY WEEK after his public-facing letter.

Our union hears this loud and clear. If the profits being returned to the stockholders are disappointing, the answer for Berkshire Hathaway and BNSF obviously isn’t for the company to try harder to grow, to earn new business, or expand its relationship with the customers they have; it is to increase the operating (Profit) ratios. The easiest and most-expedient way to do that is to start handing out pink slips and furloughs because the executives and shareholders MUST get theirs first and foremost.

We know what it looks like when railroad-owning hedge funds start managing railroads based on operating ratios and profit margins. Safety goes out the window, trains get longer, brake inspections get rushed, extra boards get smaller, PO days get canceled, maintenance workers are axed. Life gets harder at home and more hazardous for those on the job.

If Berkshire Hathaway’s profit isn’t growing fast enough, the executive perspective is it’s far cheaper to buy additional whips than to add more horses to the team. This is the same mentality used by Wall Street to run our industry into the ground since 2017.

Buffett went on to discuss the work conditions that our members/his employees face. He discussed how he works in an “always-comfortable office” while railroaders are doing their work in harsh winter conditions that are both “tiring and dangerous.” If these are actual concerns he holds, SMART-TD and our General Chairpersons would be happy to discuss more structured rest schedules, the end to BNSF’s ridiculous “Hi-Viz” attendance policy, as well as the implementation of the many safety protocols and redundancies our union has long advocated.

Additionally, if Buffett and Berkshire Hathaway’s upper management are truthfully concerned with the level of danger for their employees, they could follow Norfolk Southern’s lead and join the Confidential Close Call Reporting (C3RS) program as the FRA, NASA, and the Department of Transportation have been suggesting. This way, they can enable the safety benefits for their employees that other railroads have realized by participating in this program. It’d be preferable to going down the dangerous path of crew-size reductions and automation.

Along those same lines, another change Buffett and BNSF CEO Katie Farmer could make for safety is not to follow through on the planned job cuts for workers in the nation’s heartland.

Cutting 362 jobs in crafts charged with inspections, safety compliance, and making pivotal repairs to the tracks and rolling stock does not square with any concern expressed for worker safety. It does line up roughly 100% with the OTHER comments made about easing the “disappointment” of Berkshire’s stockholders. Buffett’s letter also laments that “a growing percentage of Americans are not looking for the difficult, and often lonely employment conditions inherent in some rail operations.”

Why would Buffett help fund the fight against two-person crew regulations if he is so worried about this aspect of our lives?

Until Buffett and the machine at Berkshire Hathaway Inc., as well as the rest of the rail executives and their all-important stockholders, are ready to address workers’ issues in a serious, thoughtful way, the hard-working people represented by SMART-TD would appreciate it if they didn’t use the crosses we bear to shield themselves in their “always-comfortable offices.”

It is inappropriate to hide behind the dangers and hardships we endure on your behalf; hardships we tolerate for the good of our families, to gain wiggle room with stockholders who aren’t happy with the size of your dividend check. As a reminder, you and your fellow shareholders make money because of us, not in spite of us, even though the Association of American Railroads claimed otherwise in 2022 that “Labor Does Not Contribute to Profits.”

We are exploited enough in our day-to-day duties at BNSF and the other big railroads with inflexible attendance policies and a desire to place profitability over safety and humanity. You have no right to use our hardships to justify anything to the stockholders. You have no right to twist the worst aspects of our lives into a justification for a recommitment to longer trains, more grueling schedules, and a diminished commitment to appropriate staffing and safety. We resent the manipulation of your backhanded compliments on our toughness and ability to overcome our job conditions despite your lack of actual assistance.

Mr. Buffett, you have done nothing in this letter but show that the owning class believes in its own story that what they do in the comfort of their own office matters more than what happens where the boots hit the ballast, at all hours of the day and night and types of weather.

How can you justify telling the world that an overdue pay raise is problematic for stock dividends while you also use our lifestyle to hijack any empathy the public has for us to benefit you and your multi-billion-dollar conglomerate?

Railroaders are used to having their primary meal for the day come off the roller grill at a gas station, but even we can’t swallow this much hot garbage.

SMART-TD is not a publicly traded, market-driven organization. We don’t pretend to understand the motivations that led to this addition to your “Letter to Investors,” although we can speculate. We do, however, know railroading. One phrase you hear when conflicts arise in crew rooms that might be good advice — “Keep my name out of your mouth.”

Until Berkshire Hathaway, BNSF, and Buffett are willing to address the core quality-of-life issues on their railroad and put the people who do the work first, rather than using them as corporate propaganda, it would be wise to adhere to this invaluable wisdom.

Phone: (216) 228-9400

Fax: (216) 228-0411
Department Email: news_td@smart-union.org

“Any time a monopoly is broken up, and competition is emphasized in the workplace, American workers win. SMART-TD stands behind today’s announcement by the Surface Transportation Board. It is a clear result of this administration’s dedication to railroad workers and workers in general over the insatiable appetite of the railroad companies to feed their bottom lines to the detriment of all else. SMART-TD, on behalf of the hardworking conductors, engineers, and yardmasters we represent, are thankful for the leadership of Martin Oberman, chair of the STB, and of the Biden administration for their courage in breaking the stranglehold the railroads have had on their customers since 1850. Our hope is that introducing the spirit of capitalism into our industry will force the railroads to run their companies more responsibly, starting with demonstrating more respect for their greatest asset, OUR MEMBERS.”

— SMART-TD President Jeremy Ferguson

This morning, the U.S. Surface Transportation Board (STB), following a unanimous vote by the board, announced a Notice of Proposed Rule Making (NPRM) that represents a tidal shift in the way railroads provide service in this country. Since the golden spike was ceremonially driven in 1869, connecting this country from coast to coast with rail service, our country’s railroads have had a unique business model. This model has always hinged on the fact that if they owned the track your factory or company was adjacent to, you were locked into their services no matter the level of their pricing or the quality of that service.

In recent years, the STB has been flooded with complaints regarding the Precision Scheduled Railroading (PSR) era from shippers who are no longer satisfied with the results of the one-sided partnerships they have with American rail barons. These shippers have been “railroaded” into paying inflated rates for severely inadequate service. The STB has ruled numerous times that rail carriers are obligated to honor their contracts and provide regular service to our country’s most-pivotal industries.

Recently, the STB asserted its power to insist that Union Pacific (UP) service a large-scale poultry farm in California whose livestock was suffering from that carrier’s inability to consistently deliver the feed necessary to keep their animals alive. Currently, the Navajo Nation has engaged the STB in a dispute with BNSF over its inability to deliver on its contractual obligation to get coal to market produced by a subsidiary of the Nation . The idea that railroads can service who they want when they want does not mesh with their obligations to provide adequate service.

Martin Oberman, the Biden administration, and the STB today said they will no longer allow this mentality to continue. The STB is holding the railroads’ collective feet to the fire so that the supply chain for critical goods, like energy and food supplies, delivers on time.

The NPRM announced today provides three basic standards of service railroad companies must abide by. If they refuse to do so, their previously locked-in customers will have the right to contract with another railroad that will. As the press release from the STB points out, this will be a complex process of negotiating trackage rights; however, the STB shows no sign of backing down from the task.

Chairperson Martin Oberman specifically noted, “One of the principal goals of the rule is to incentivize carriers to maintain sufficient resources — specifically workforce and locomotives.”

This NPRM is open to public comments until October 23, 2023. If it is adopted as proposed, this nation’s railroads are, for the first time, forced to recognize a direct correlation between their staffing levels and their ability to retain customers. This puts these carriers in a unique position where retention of their workforce, as well as attracting new talent, will force itself to be their top priority.

SMART-TD is proud to stand with Chairman Oberman, the STB, and President Biden as they make this bold and decisive move to level the playing field and assert the ideals of capitalism into the railroad industry.

Railroad workers, heavy industry, and “mom-and-pop” shops across this country will benefit from adopting this proposed rule-making. As SMART-TD President Ferguson stated, “When monopolies are disrupted by capitalism, our country’s workers and the economy itself win, and win big.”

###

If you’re interested in speaking more about the union’s stance on this issue and the changes SMART-TD is calling for, we’d be happy to connect you with:

SMART Transportation Division President Jeremy Ferguson

President Jeremy Ferguson, a member of Local 313 in Grand Rapids, Mich., was elected president of SMART’s Transportation Division in 2019.

President Ferguson, an Army veteran, started railroading in 1994 as a conductor on CSX at Grand Rapids, Mich., and was promoted to engineer in 1995. Ferguson headed the recent national rail negotiations for the Union with the nation’s rail carriers.

SMART Transportation Division National Legislative Director Gregory Hynes

Greg Hynes is a fifth-generation railroader and was elected national legislative director in 2019.

Hynes served on the SMART Transportation Division National Safety Team that assists the National Transportation Safety Board with accident investigations, from 2007 – 2014.

In 2014, he was appointed to the Federal Railroad Administration’s Railroad Safety Advisory Committee (RSAC), which develops new railroad regulatory standards.

Hynes was appointed the first chairperson of the UTU Rail Safety Task Force in 2009 and served in that capacity until being elected SMART Transportation Division alternate national legislative director at the Transportation Division’s 2014 convention.

SMART Transportation Division Alternate National Legislative Director Jared Cassity

Jared Cassity was elected by his peers in 2019 and currently serves as the Alternate National Legislative Director for the SMART Transportation Division, which is comprised of approximately 125,000 active and retired members who work in a variety of different crafts in the transportation industry. These crafts include employees on every Class I railroad, Amtrak, many shortline railroads, bus and mass transit employees, and airport personnel.

In addition to his elected roles, Cassity has also been appointed as the Union’s Chief of Safety, serves as the Director for the SMART TD National Safety Team (which assists the NTSB in major rail-related accident investigations), is SMART TD’s voting member on the Federal Railroad Administration’s C3RS Steering Committee, and is the first labor member to ever be appointed to the Transportation Security Administration’s Surface Transportation Safety Advisory Committee.

Local 200 chairperson, general chairperson and SLD’s combined efforts get opportunity for cut workers to remain in industry

E. Hunter Harrison has been dead since Dec. 16, 2017. His legacy known as Precision Scheduled Railroading (PSR) is still alive and kicking.  

Some of the railroads have said publicly that they are trying to steer away from PSR. But in an unexpected twist, the specter of Harrison is rearing its ugly head in the lives of all our Union Pacific members with the recent ascension of new CEO Jim Vena.   

Vena is a known student of Harrison. When UP employees, some stockholders and SMART-TD general chairpersons expressed alarm at Vena’s hiring, the carrier put out a well-polished piece of propaganda about how Vena 2.0 was a changed man. 

We were all supposed to be put at ease, that he had learned the hard way that PSR was an unnecessarily disruptive force to the industry, the supply chain and in the personal lives of railroad employees.  

For the record, SMART-TD never bought this idea. The five GCs of our UP General Committees in no uncertain terms informed the carrier that they strongly disagree with Vena’s hiring. In the letter sent to UP’s vice president of labor relations, our GCs said “As COO, Jim Vena enacted policies, practices, and procedures that deliberately destroyed our members’ quality of life for the sake of profit. 

“He orchestrated huge furloughs and cuts to every department in transportation, which resulted in the crew shortages we have yet to recover from,” the GCs wrote. 

This second point came into play almost immediately upon Vena taking over Aug. 14. Less than a week into his reign, Vena proved our GCs to be absolutely correct by announcing UP was going to cut 94 positions across four crafts and 13 terminals.  

These men and women whose jobs were erased through no fault of their own were represented by the IBEW, IAM, NCFO and SMART Mechanical Division. Many of these fellow railroaders worked in remote locations where the UP terminal was the largest employer. As a result, many of them were going to have to uproot their families and pursue new career opportunities. 

SMART-TD Local Chairperson Amanda Snide (Local 200, North Platte, Neb.) didn’t like what she was hearing. She was frustrated and confused why these railroaders, though from different crafts and unions, were being thrown to the wolves while her terminal was desperately looking to find candidates to fill their posted openings for conductor positions.  

Sister Snide took matters into her own hands at that point. She successfully brokered the idea with the local management at the North Platte terminal to offer 11 employees slated to be let go in the mechanical crafts positions as conductors.  

As we approach the Labor Day holiday, there can be no better example of the value of labor movement than what these three accomplished for these fellow railroaders and their families. We thank you for defending our rail labor brothers and sisters against the corporate greed that threatened everything they had worked to build.  

Snide’s results giving the workers affected by Vena’s malicious cuts at her home terminal the chance to preserve their income, health benefits and retirement, impressed Nebraska’s SLD Foust. He took what Snide had started and turned his attention to the 83 other casualties of Vena’s short-sighted greed. Foust contacted General Chairperson Luke Edington from GO-953. Brother Edington, who was already on the record with UP about not being on board with UP’s “new vision,” took it from there. 

Edington took Snide’s plan and Foust’s vision of expanding it straight to UP’s Human Resources Department. SMART-TD is very proud to announce that Brother Edington succeeded in reaching an agreement with UP that at all terminals where they are simultaneously attempting to hire conductors and laying off other craft employees will give the same opportunity to transfer to conductor positions that Snide had enacted in North Platte.  

As of Aug. 30, 50% of the affected employees in eligible terminals had applied for transfers to conductor positions — quite a few salvaged railroad careers.  

SMART-TD is very proud of the initiative taken by Sister Snide, SLD Foust and GO-953 GC Luke Edington to make this happen.  

As we approach the Labor Day holiday, there can be no better example of the value of labor movement than what these three accomplished for these fellow railroaders and their families. We thank you for defending our rail labor brothers and sisters against the corporate greed that threatened everything they had worked to build.  

There has always been and will always be Hunter Harrison and Jim Vena types in the rail industry. What is important is that we commit ourselves as a union and as individuals to make sure we can match them with the wits, fight, solidarity and humanity exhibited by members like Amanda Snide and that the union spirit embodies. 

Lance Fritz, president and chief executive officer of the Union Pacific Railroad, is on his way out the door after announcing in late February that he will vacate his office by the end of 2023. Though there is no publicly announced date for his departure, his hand is on the ripcord and he’s preparing to deploy that golden parachute.

That being said, SMART Transportation Division Colorado State Legislative Director Carl Smith didn’t want Fritz to go without a little something to remember his legislative committee by. But rather than going with the cliché of getting Fritz a ritzy timepiece and a handshake, he rented a digital billboard truck to track Fritz around Colorado for four days in early April.

As Fritz took the executive business car around Smith’s state, he was escorted by the billboard truck that showed rotating signs that featured several messages regarding Colorado’s rejection of Precision Scheduled Railroading (PSR), such as “Our Mile-High State Doesn’t Need 3 mile-long trains!” and, “It can happen here too!” with pictures of the derailment and hazmat spill in East Palestine, Ohio. Messages on the truck’s rolling billboards included a QR code that could be scanned by anyone who saw it and took people directly to the SMART Legislative Action Center, where people could support national rail safety legislation.

The truck made several stops mirroring Fritz’s Mile High State tour. First, the truck went to the Rocky Mountain Train Show at the National Western Complex in Denver. Per the train show’s website, this event averages 11,000 attendees as the largest train show west of the Mississippi River. SLD Smith had the truck there both days of the show and prompted many discussions among the train enthusiasts in attendance.

The truck stayed in Denver over the weekend but did not only target the good people attending the show. It also made its way to three governmental functions. On Saturday, the truck and its messages could be seen circling Colorado’s statehouse as legislators were holding a rare weekend session. Additionally, the truck’s presence was felt at the Colorado Democratic Assembly meeting in Denver. On Saturday evening there was a large gathering of legislators and dignitaries at what is called the Colorado Obama Gala which features the former president and all the press that naturally follows him. As you might have guessed, Smith made sure SMART-TD’s anti-PSR message crashed that, too.

On April 3, Fritz and his entourage took UP’s business train to LaSalle, Colo., for a meeting. If they thought not being in Denver would spare them the presence of Smith’s billboard truck, they were undoubtedly disappointed that it had made the 50-mile journey north to greet them in LaSalle.

On April 4, Fritz held a legislative breakfast meeting on the business train. Brother Smith and his truck made sure they made their presence felt their too. UP’s attempt to get these legislators’ undivided attention was disrupted by the Smith’s inconvenient reminder that there are real-world consequences attached to the empty rhetoric of the rail carriers and their lobbyists try to sell.

The graphics for the signs were put together in house by SMART-TD’s PR staff, and the cost for the truck was shared between the Colorado State Legislative committee, Local 202 out of Denver and other local boards of adjustment.

This effort on the part of the Colorado Legislative Committee was not all about making departing CEO Fritz and co. aware of SMART-TD’s objections to the way they run a railroad, and the public awareness the truck created throughout the state has an additional purpose.

Brother Smith has a three-pronged bill to be introduced in the halls of Colorado’s Legislature. His bill looks to directly undo some of the basic problems our faces in the era of PSR. The legislation has not been assigned a bill number yet, but seeks to limit train lengths, regulate the use of hot box defect detectors in the state and bring about penalties for the carriers to discourage blocked crossings.

Getting his box truck in front of as many Colorado voters, and news cameras as possible was a unique and creative kickoff to Smith’s campaign to get this important legislation the momentum it needs.

SMART-TD wants to thank Brother Smith, Local 202, and all the men and women who made this possible. We look forward to reporting on the progress of your bill as it makes its way through the process of becoming the law of the land in the great state of Colorado, and we hope you never stop fighting for our members!

“From the Ballast” is an open column for SMART Transportation Division rail members to state their perspective on issues related to the railroad industry. Members of the union are encouraged to submit content by emailing to news_TD@smart-union.org. Columns are published at the union’s discretion and may be published in the SMART TD newspaper.

The term “getting railroaded” has its origins in the 1800s. Landowners would use it when the rail companies stole land in order to lay down new track. It has evolved these days to describe generally being cheated or bullied. Unfortunately, the originators of the term who perfected the practice are still bullying, but now it is focused on their own employees.

Today’s corporate railroads may not be stealing land, but they are stealing our jobs, our time and our safety. With Precision Scheduled Railroading (PSR), the number of railroad jobs has dropped 30%. Thousands of jobs were done away with even as we kept our country going through a pandemic. More were eliminated as the carrier executives chased an operating ratio that enriched the shareholders and railroad owners.

As headcount diminished, time was stolen as those still employed were forced to work more hours with new attendance policies that leave little time for family or rest. This led to a worker exodus that even further decreased employees and time.

This all resulted in workers’ safety being stolen. Pushing workers to the point of fatigue and making doctor’s appointments all but impossible to schedule have hurt workers’ health. Cutting inspection times and maintenance has led to more breakdowns and derailments. Growing train lengths have increased these dangers as well. In short, workers are all still getting railroaded.



So, what do we do about it?

Some have conceded that these companies and their lobbyists are too powerful. This mentality is understood, but we’ve seen challenges like these defeated before. Child labor, segregation and unsafe working conditions were all beaten back by unions. There’s no doubt that the odds seemed insurmountable at the time and yet they overcame them.

They did this because they had one big thing going for them. They were on the right side. Well, so are railroaders. In the last few years, we have seen customers, the public, news media and even politicians from both parties start talking about the dangers of PSR and one-person rail crews. Five years ago, it was ridiculous to think that major media outlets would have reports on these issues or even be concerned about, but they have and they are and progress is being made.

This happened because railroaders spoke out. They wrote emails, met with representatives and even used social media to spread the word. If all of us, together, made an effort to do the same, we could win this battle.

So, please use the resources that are available — take some time and write an email to your representative. Talk with leaders at a City Council meeting. Make some handouts and pin them on a board. Go to a union meeting and suggest something to inform your community. Do some philanthropy and talk about railroad issues. Put up an informative table at a festival. Do something to fight back. It’s hard to quiet 100,000 voices ringing. Every person who learns about this corporate greed and corruption is another crack in their armor. It’s easy to give up, but let’s stand strong together and let them know that the days of getting “railroaded” are now over.

This article was submitted by an active member of SMART Transportation Division Local 445 (Niota, Ill.) who works for BNSF and chose to remain anonymous. We thank him for his submission and his continued advocacy in union matters!

The brutal effects of Precision Scheduled Railroading, better known as PSR, on the lives of railroaders since 2017 have been well-documented. It’s been almost as bad for suppliers, who have seen delays in their products making it to market. It’s been bad for shippers, who have seen deliveries have to take circuitous routes so the carriers can game the metrics to show that a rail car isn’t dwelling somewhere, and it’s been bad for retailers and manufacturers, who have experienced difficulties getting products on their shelves and materials to their assembly lines.

The people benefiting from the ruthless implementation of PSR have been the rail company shareholders and execs, seeing their wallets fatten and profits blossom as profitability and share prices rise on the backs of the efforts of SMART Transportation Division members and all of rail labor.

It is a common quip on social media for railroaders to comment on articles about derailments — “But at least the shareholders are OK,” or some variant, meaning that the folks who write the accident off as the cost of doing business will be just fine so long as the money train keeps delivering.

Yet following Norfolk Southern’s Feb. 3 derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, the carrier and PSR have received even more public scrutiny than perhaps either can stand.

The story of PSR and what it means for industry safety has been exposed by the press coverage of the fiery wreckage in East Palestine. Confusion and anger about the business practice have been flowing out of the national media faster than vinyl chloride contaminating groundwater. Additional headlines are generated seemingly daily by increased coverage of derailments occurring across the continental U.S. In each, the specter of Norfolk Southern and the events in East Palestine are refreshed in one way or another.

It seems that Norfolk Southern’s extended nightmare has worsened. After a month and a half of consecutive losses in press cycles featuring the release of toxic materials in a region where thousands of people live, multiple derailments, an employee fatality, having their CEO lambasted by U.S. senators on live TV, and derailing another train 12 miles from the hometown of Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, it would be fair to ask how it could get worse.

An internal revolt can be added to the list. Their own shareholders have decided to bite the hand that feeds. A class-action lawsuit filed in mid-March against NS by a group of shareholders claims they were misled about the ramifications of PSR. The suit states that NS failed to disclose pertinent information about PSR, such as the involvement of longer/heavier trains and deep cuts to operational personnel. They go on to claim that Norfolk Southern’s embrace of PSR was part of a “CULTURE OF INCREASED RISK-TAKING AT THE EXPENSE OF REASONABLE SAFETY PRECAUTIONS.”

Ironically the people NS and all rail companies are using PSR to make richer aren’t comfortable with PSR anymore for the same reasons railroaders and their families have been uncomfortable with it since its inception. Now that political leaders and the media have taken the time to dig into the topic, the narrative is iron clad.

Essentially, the group of NS shareholders say that large-scale disasters were inevitable because of the practices of PSR. Due to that inevitability, they say that NS leadership was not acting as good corporate stewards of their investments. So even though the investors have benefited from record-breaking returns, seeing an Ohio village spoiled and the later economic consequences may have them now sensing the end of the road. These shareholders have become appalled at what PSR really meant on the ground level. It’s a classic case of losing your appetite when someone tells you how the sausage is actually made.

Under normal circumstances, it would be difficult to sympathize with the shareholders of NS and the other carriers. For seven years, rail labor has felt the weight of their finely polished wing-tipped shoe on our fingers as we try to keep the fraying supply chain together. The results have been a driving force in both our personal and professional lives — constant exhaustion, poor morale and the dread of wondering what else will go wrong.

That being said, there is a time-tested adage that, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” And if the railroad employees are revolting against PSR, the government regulators are pushing back against PSR, and now the mighty shareholders are joining in, we need to embrace it. This class-action suit by NS shareholders may turn out to be the loudest voice in the anti-hedge fund/PSR railroading chorus.

What we the people who move their freight every day say means absolutely nothing to carriers. What the FRA does to them is a nuisance that only means the carriers have to adjust the next quarter’s lobbying budget. But when the shareholders seize pitchforks and torches, we all know that is the only pressure that means anything to the hedge-fund operators leading our nation’s railroads.

We would encourage all our members to keep an eye on this lawsuit. If you are an NS employee or anyone with significant amounts of stock in their company, we would encourage you to follow the link provided to look into joining the suit.

SMART-TD will continue to keep you informed as we push back against PSR and fight now and into the future for your quality of life to be restored to what it was before Hunter Harrison’s legacy infected our industry.

WATCH: SMART-TD Ohio State Legislative Director Clyde Whitaker testified about rail safety issues before a U.S. Senate committee in March 2023.

Last week’s much-anticipated hearing of the U.S. Senate’s Committee on Environment and Public Works featured a discussion of the Norfolk Southern derailment and the subsequent release of chemicals in East Palestine, Ohio. The spectacle of seeing NS CEO Alan Shaw fend off questions from the senators was clearly the main event of the day; however the undercard of the hearing was well worth the price of the ticket.  

The hearing’s opening panel featured a robust discussion of the new bipartisan legislation being considered in the Senate known as the Railway Safety Act of 2023. Three out of the four title sponsors of the bill were in the hearing and testified about the goals they seek to achieve through the Safety Act. 

Testimony started off with U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, a Pennsylvania Democrat. Last December, Casey not only voted for U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders’ legislation to guarantee seven paid sick days for railroad employees, but he also spoke at the SMART Transportation Division-led rally Dec. 13 outside the U.S. Capitol in Washington D.C. in support of ending Precision Scheduled Railroading (PSR).  

With the Feb. 3 Norfolk Southern derailment and subsequent aftermath unfolding mere feet from Sen. Casey’s state, it makes sense that he would be among the group of legislators trying to rein in the effects PSR is having on our industry.  

In discussing the Railway Safety Act of 2023, Casey said, “The future has to be about passing the Railway Safety Act that Senator Brown, Senator Vance, Senator Fetterman and I and others are leading. It’s bipartisan. That never happens around here on big bills, or rarely, I should say. It would be a good start by Norfolk Southern to tell us here today in addition to what more they are going to do for the people of Ohio and Pennsylvania, to tell us today that they support the bill! That would help.” Casey continued, “That’s what the people of both states deserve.” 

Following Sen. Casey’s testimony, the spotlight went to the two Ohio senators. Sherrod Brown and JD Vance are on very different ends of the political spectrum, but they both did solid work discussing the strengths of and the need for the legislation.  

“Lobbyists for the railroad companies have spent years fighting every effort to strengthen rules to make our trains and our rail lines safer. Now Ohioans are paying the price.”

– Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown

In discussing Norfolk Southern’s large derailment in Ohio on March 4th, Sen. Brown said, “Another NS train derailed in Springfield, Ohio. This time the cars that derailed weren’t carrying hazardous chemicals, but other cars on that 200-plus-car train were. The only thing that saved Ohioans from another disaster was luck. But we need more than that. That is why Senator Vance and I have come together to introduce our bipartisan Railway Safety Act.”  

He went on to say that “lobbyists for the railroad companies have spent years fighting every effort to strengthen rules to make our trains and our rail lines safer. Now Ohioans are paying the price.” 

Sen. Vance came out swinging pretty hard at the railroads, especially considering he is just months into his first term in Congress. For his part, Vance pointed out that, “This is an industry that enjoys special subsidies that almost no industry enjoys. This is an industry that enjoys special carveouts that almost no industry enjoys. This is an industry that just three months ago had the federal government come in and save them from a labor dispute. It was effectively a bailout. And now they’re claiming before the Senate and House that our reasonable legislation is somehow a violation of the free market? Well pot, meet the kettle, because that doesn’t make an ounce of sense. You cannot claim special government privileges, you cannot ask the government to bail you out and then resist basic public safety.”  

In reference to his colleagues in Congress, Vance offered this: “We have a choice. Are we for big business and big government, or are we for the people of East Palestine? It’s a time for choosing. Let’s make the right one.” 

It’s hard to put a finer point on it than that. SMART-TD is happy to have the combination of these three legislators along with Sens. John Fetterman (D-Pa.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), pushing this bill in Washington. We applaud their interest in safeguarding the rail industry and look forward to helping them as we get the Railway Safety Act of 2023 over the finish line.

“From the Ballast” is an open column for SMART Transportation Division rail members to state their perspective on issues related to the railroad industry. Members of the union are encouraged to submit content by emailing to news_TD@smart-union.org. Columns are published at the union’s discretion and may be published in the SMART-TD newspaper.

Most of us with any amount of time on the railroad have the shared experience of feeling the hot seat that comes with a company discipline hearing. These kangaroo courts are not set up to be fair and impartial fact-finding missions.  As we all know, they are an exercise in intimidation meant to make us feel as uncomfortable as possible. If they can add the bonus of humiliation on top of the penalty they’re threatening to impose, it makes the experience so much better.  

The U.S. Senate’s Committee on Environment and Public Works’ hearing March 9 put Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw in our shoes for once (and not that pair of work boots he acquired to look like a relatable guy when the cameras were filming him in East Palestine, Ohio). For once, the so-called “big boss” got to experience the discomfort and frustration of when people in authority demand an explanation and accountability. It was very reminiscent of how we feel in similar situations when we’re getting grilled by railroad managers like Shaw.  

It was hard to feel any sympathy. Yet while every senator seemed poised to force Shaw’s hand, each stopped just short of going in for the kill. Those who did ask hard questions were given lukewarm half-answers — snippets from the well-rehearsed lines that he has been using since the derailment happened. He appeared like he was simply spinning his greatest hits album of the soundbites that scored highest in a focus group. 

Based on the fact that the hearing went for over a third of the time a rail crew has off between shifts these days, most members likely didn’t have the opportunity to watch. In an effort to put a bow on it, the hearing broke down like this: 

CEO Shaw was asked about as many questions as you could fit into the 3-hour, 19-minute hearing but somehow managed to answer every one of them with one of the following responses on a loop.  

  • I have only been the CEO since May 2022. 
  • I am personally determined to make this right for the community of East Palestine. 
  • Norfolk Southern will be in East Palestine tomorrow, next month, next year, and ten years from now. 
  • We created a new website in response to the disaster. 

After seeing his performance, (and that was exactly what it was) I would offer Mr. Shaw some advice. First, he should hire a new acting coach to help him get through these situations. His entitled angry Wall Street CEO reality leaked through the repentant empathetic “Mother Teresa” persona that he was trying to adopt before the panel as penance for the misery that’s occurred in East Palestine.  

Second, I would advise him to learn the value of direct answers. He was asked yes/no questions time and time again and offered answers that went on for minutes at a time and somehow did not include either of those two words to definitively answer what was asked.  

Since the senators were allotted a limited amount of time for their questions, Shaw was successful in running out the clock by playing a version of corporate prevent defense. But where he succeeded in not being pinned down to anything that could be held up in court as a commitment, he failed to move the needle in the court of public opinion. His wishy-washy answers, devoid of authenticity, full of unwillingness to commit to substantive industry change away from Precision Scheduled Railroading, and the recurring theme of “we’ll consider throwing more money at the problem we created,” clearly angered the senators on the Committee of Environment and Public Works. We will see what effect they have on the all-important shareholders of Norfolk Southern. His appearance did nothing to inspire the confidence of SMART Transportation Division.  

Among some of the questions from the senators that Shaw artfully dodged were: 

  • What did NS learn from the 20th derailment that resulted in a chemical release since 2015 that it didn’t learn from the 5th, the 10th, or the 15th? — Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Michigan) 
  • Will you lead the rail industry in getting away from the business model known as Precision Scheduled Railroading? — Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) 
  • Was the owner of the rail car in question who is responsible for its maintenance and contents involved in the decision to vent it and burn off the contents of it? — Sen. Markwayne Mullin (R-Oklahoma) 

One last highlight came from Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-Rhode Island). It wasn’t posed as a question, but in Whitehouse’s comments, he stated that, “Mr. Shaw, the news is reporting that there has just been a significant derailment in Alabama of one of your trains. I certainly hope that all of your team and anyone in the vicinity is safe and well. You may need to look into that.” 

Though the net result of the hearing was minimal, CEO Shaw came out of it looking highly frustrated, but less than trustworthy. He was clearly uncomfortable being held accountable for the unintended but inevitable consequences of his company’s embrace of PSR.  

What left me with an uncomfortable feeling was that Shaw continually framed all the promises made to East Palestine and surrounding communities as “personal commitments.” As anyone on the rail can tell you, nothing is true or real in this industry until it is. There is no such thing as a guarantee. With all of the commitments coming from Shaw personally, it raises the question of what happens if NS fires him?  

Likely, he’ll float away comfortably from East Palestine on his golden parachute, make a comfortable landing elsewhere — maybe as an industry lobbyist — and the Ohio village residents he testified to have such an affinity with would be left holding a bag full of empty promises, just like every one of us railroaders with wallets full of unfulfilled IOUs from Class I managers. 

Daniel Banks is a Class I certified conductor and government affairs representative for the SMART Transportation Division. 

For immediate release 
March 1, 2023 
Phone: (216) 228-9400  
Department email:news_td@smart-union.org   

“This legislation goes a long way toward protecting American families and communities while fortifying the rail industry to be sustainable and safe long into the future. The voices of SMART-TD’s brothers and sisters have been heard by these senators and are echoing through the halls of the United States Congress.” 

INDEPENDENCE, Ohio (March 1, 2023) — Jeremy Ferguson, president of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers Transportation Division (SMART-TD), is calling for national support of The Railway Safety Act of 2023, a bipartisan bill that acknowledges the real-world conditions that shape the day-to-day safety concerns of the railroad workers who haul America’s freight.  

U.S. Sens. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), J.D. Vance (R-Ohio), Bob Casey (D-Pa.), John Fetterman (D-Pa.), Marco Rubio (R-Florida) and Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) have listened to the concerns of their constituents and put forward a comprehensive package in the Railway Safety Act that lives up to its billing — prioritizing the safety concerns expressed by the public and rail worker alike. In this bill, they give credence to the common-sense safety measures that our union and others in rail labor have advanced for years. 

“The provisions in this act add up to the end of the era of Precision Scheduled Railroading (PSR) and attempt to take back control of our nation’s supply chain from Wall Street’s ‘profit at any cost’ mentality. It offers a chance for the nation to make the giant rail corporations take rational measures to get the industry to do what it’s designed to do — move freight through our nation safely and efficiently and be an example for the rest of the world to model,” President Ferguson said. “SMART-TD is proud to support this bill and its efforts to bring about generational changes in this country and to take a major step to stop PSR. We will work tirelessly with this team of like-minded Senators to realize their vision for a safer and stronger rail industry.” 

The safeguards offered in the bill include, but are not limited to: 

  • A nationwide mandate for well-trained two-person crews on all freight trains; 
  • Restrictions on train length and weight; 
  • Regulations on the installation, frequency, upkeep, and response to wayside defect detectors; 
  • Speed restrictions; 
  • Drastically increased fines for rail companies and management employees who do not adhere to rail safety protocols; 
  • Universalized track maintenance standards; 
  • Universalized rail-car maintenance standards; 
  • Higher standards for tank cars carrying hazardous material; 
  • Emergency response plans for carriers and communities; 
  • Phasing out of rail cars that do not meet strengthened safety requirements; 
  • Annual government audits of rail carriers to validate compliance to new heightened safety standards. 

“Hedge fund management of rail companies and their PSR strategy have careened the United States rail industry into a dark and dangerous place in the last six years. This bill has the potential to put safe operations into its rightful place as the gold standard in railroading and not what the next quarterly report can bring. We owe it to the people of East Palestine, Ohio, and to all communities that have railroad tracks running through them to have members of Congress do the right thing — to support this bill and insist that it makes it to President Biden’s desk without being watered down by negotiations or the special interests that will seek to stop it and claim that it is too ‘burdensome’ for a highly profitable industry to implement,” Ferguson continued.  

A recently released Ipsos-USA Today poll shows that 53% of Americans believe that strengthened rail industry safety regulations could have prevented the disaster in East Palestine, Ohio. 

Read the text of the bill

Fact sheet about the bill

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SMART Transportation Division is comprised of approximately 125,000 active and retired members who work in a variety of different crafts in the transportation industry. These crafts include employees on every Class I railroad, Amtrak, many shortline railroads, bus and mass transit employees and airport personnel.

If you’re interested in speaking more about the Railway Safety Act of 2023, PSR, East Palestine, rail safety, and the next steps for the rail industry, we’d be happy to connect you with:  

SMART Transportation Division President Jeremy Ferguson 

President Jeremy Ferguson, a member of Local 313 in Grand Rapids, Mic., was elected president of SMART’s Transportation Division in 2019.President Ferguson, an Army veteran, started railroading in 1994 as a conductor on CSX at Grand Rapids, Mich., and was promoted to engineer in 1995. Ferguson headed the recent national rail negotiations for the union with the nation’s rail carriers. 

SMART Transportation Division National Legislative Director Gregory Hynes 

Greg Hynes is a fifth-generation railroader and was elected national legislative director in 2019. Hynes served on the SMART Transportation Division National Safety Team that assists the National Transportation Safety Board with accident investigations, from 2007-2014. In 2014, he was appointed to the Federal Railroad Administration’s Railroad Safety Advisory Committee (RSAC), which develops new railroad regulatory standards. 

SMART Transportation Division Alternate National Legislative Director Jared Cassity

Jared Cassity was elected by his peers in 2019 and currently serves as the Alternate National Legislative Director. In addition to his elected roles, Cassity has also been appointed as the union’s chief of safety, serves as the director for the SMART-TD National Safety Team (which assists the NTSB in major rail-related accident investigations), is SMART-TD’s voting member on the Federal Railroad Administration’s C3RS Steering Committee, and is the first and only labor member to ever be appointed to the Transportation Security Administration’s Surface Transportation Safety Advisory Committee. 

SMART Transportation Division President Jeremy Ferguson issued the following statement on Feb. 21:

“The greatest threat to the American railroad industry and the communities with which it intersects is Precision Scheduled Railroading (PSR). The changes PSR has brought since its inception in 2017 have only served to make executives and Wall Street shareholders richer, while the risk to employees and the public has become greater.

“The derailment that occurred in East Palestine was predictable and preventable. Unfortunately, financially driven equations, like the operating ratio, have caused rail carriers to abandon fundamentally sound practices for haphazard, inherently dangerous, impetuous movements of freight and locomotives across America’s rail system — all in the pursuit of increasing the bottom line. This is neither responsible nor sustainable, and we are now seeing the reality of this fact coming into fruition.

“Because of PSR, we find ourselves in an era of exponential increases to train length, less consideration to train make-up or construction, the desire to reduce crew size and introduce automation, the reduction in frequency and quality of inspections to equipment and infrastructure, and the permissibility of railroads to self-report and self-police — none of which are consistent with safety.

“Now is not the time to introduce more technology but rather to focus on the fundamental changes needed to reverse railroading’s dangerous trajectory. Now is the time to put an end to PSR.

“While our hearts break for the people of East Palestine, Ohio, we are thankful that our calls for meaningful oversight are finally being heard. We look forward to working with President Biden and the Department of Transportation to get this right. The catastrophe in Ohio and Pennsylvania demands that we get this right.

“We stand willing and ready to do just that.”

Secretary Buttigieg’s letter is available here.