Train crew shortages plague UP in St. Louis

Train crews employed by the Union Pacific Railroad in the St. Louis area are working a dangerously high number of hours each week because of a personnel shortage.

UP told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that it has been hit by a higher than expected number of retirees after passage of the Railroad Retirement and Survivors' Improvement Act earlier this year. The Post-Dispatch reported this story on October 24.

The remaining train crew members are being pushed to the limit and often work while fatigued.

BLE General Chairman Charlie Rightnowar (UP-Central Region) told the Post-Dispatch that the situation has forced the remaining UP engineers to work themselves into a state of exhaustion. They are usually required to remain available for work with minimal breaks between shifts.

"What we have is budgetary forces versus safety forces," Rightnowar told the newspaper. "It's money. This whole issue is money and profits for the Union Pacific."

Worse, Rightnowar said, some engineers have faced disciplinary action if they don't make themselves available to work often enough.

Some workers' families have responded by starting a group - Railroad Employee Safety-Quality, or RRES-Q - to draw attention to the personnel shortage and their claims about the railroad's recent treatment of employees.

Union Pacific employs 593 engineers and trainmen, who operate about 100 trains a day in the St. Louis area.

Rightnowar said Union Pacific is not adequately staffing the "extra" backup pool, forcing regular engineers on certain lines to back one another up in the event of illness or vacations.

UP told the newspaper it recently hired 53 people in its St. Louis service area so far this year, and 12 current trainmen were selected to start engineer training earlier this month.

Rightnowar said the new engineers will barely keep up with normal attrition and represent just a fraction of the need.

In the meantime, Rightnowar and others say crews are suffering from fatigue that could endanger the health of employees and increase the risk of accidents.

"You are out on your feet," said Rightnowar, a 28-year railroad veteran.

Engineers have been known to drink caffeine-filled soft drinks or coffee, hang their heads out the window in 20-degree temperatures or do jumping jacks to keep themselves alert.

The federal hours-of-service law requires minimum rest intervals between shifts. But union officials say the unpredictable work schedules make it difficult to get adequate sleep.


© 2002 Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers