Updated September 15, 2022 - TRA Newswire -

A rail strike that would affect Texas and the rest of the nation was averted today, but the threat still remains.

A tentative deal was hammered out between railroads and the unions after a 20-hour bargaining session. Ratification by rank-and-file union members will take place in the coming weeks with approval not yet assured.

- September 14, 2022 -

Rail shippers and passengers are bracing for a potential shutdown of services in Texas and across the nation this coming Friday, September 16 if railroads and unions do not reach a settlement in a long-brewing dispute over wages and working conditions.

Amtrak has already begun to cancel long-distance train services as of Tuesday, September 13 that operate on freight-rail owned tracks in preparation for a possible railroad work stoppage. Texas Eagle and Sunset Limited service to the West Coast shows "cancelled" and as Friday draws closer more trains are expected to be annulled so travelers are not stranded at intermediate points.

Amtrak issued a statement that read "Amtrak will only operate trains this week that we can insure will have enough time to reach their final destinations by 12:01 a.m. Friday."

The Oklahoma-Texas DOT cooperative Heartland Flyer between Fort Worth and Oklahoma City, which operates on tracks owned by BNSF Railway would also be curtailed.

Local and regional passenger rail carriers in Texas such as Trinity Railway Express, TEXRail, Austin's Red Line and DCTA's A-Train, which operate and are dispatched over their own tracks, should not be affected.

Union Pacific, BNSF Railway and Kansas City Southern started to reduce service Monday ahead of any potential labor action Friday at 12:01 am. Railroads have already stopped accepting shipments of hazardous and "security sensitive" loads. Union Pacific said the pre-emptive move is to "protect employees, customers and the communities we serve." In addition about 45% of intermodal traffic moves over UP and BNSF. 

A rail strike would ripple through the supply chain with shutdowns estimated by the Association of American Railroads to cost $2 billion a day. In Texas it would mean shipments of petro-chemicals in and out of the Gulf Coast Houston-Beaumont-Port Arthur region would be affected as well as rail deliveries of frac sand and oil field equipment to the Permian basin. In addition, coal shipments to Texas power plants, grain loads during the peak harvest season, chlorine deliveries to city water treatment systems, movement of intermodal trains and other commodities statewide will start to feel the pinch.

Most labor unions have reached tentative agreements with railroads but the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET) and the United Transportation Union (SMART-TD), representing half of all rail workers, have not. Those unions say they will not ratify contracts unless quality-of-life issues are addressed. They include vacation, sick days and attendance policies. A Presidential Emergency Board's recommendations on work rules and wages have left the railroads and unions in a stalemate.

In a joint statement from BLET and SMART-TD, the union statement said "the railroads are using shippers, consumers, and the supply chain of our nation as pawns in an effort to get our Unions to cave into their contract demands knowing that our members would never accept them. Our Unions will not cave into these scare tactics, and Congress must not cave into what can only be described as corporate terrorism."

Class 1 railroads slashed about one-third of positions over the past six years. The unions claim remaining workers are subject to grueling schedules that affect their health and safety. An absenteeism policy initiated by BNSF Railway called "Hi-Viz" was modified this summer after hundreds of employees quit when told that policy required them to be available to work 29 of 30 days.

About 40% of long-distance commodities moves over railroads every day. Truckers would not even begin to chip away at  shipments carried by some 7,000 trains.

Even without a potential shutdown the nation's freight rail carriers still struggle with a lack of employees. International shipping company Maersk said they are bypassing Fort Worth, Texas rail yards because of "severe congestion" around North Texas. 

BNSF has urged its customers to call members of Congress to prevent any interruptions, hoping that legislators would intervene. The tricky part is that Congress, controlled by Democrats, heavily favors labor unions and a November election is looming.  

Photo credit: TxDOT