As part of the nation’s critical infrastructure, freight railroads and their nearly 140,000-mile network were vital in the battle to weather the pandemic, getting supplies and goods to Americans sheltering at home and revitalizing the economy.
The only way that railroads could do their job for America during the worst of the coronavirus pandemic was to first ensure the health and safety of their unwavering and dedicated employees. In normal times, railroads provide daily janitorial services to keep offices and terminals throughout the network safe and clean. But the COVID-19 pandemic necessitated ramping those efforts up significantly.
Using cleaning materials and procedures recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and working with janitorial partners, many railroads increased these services with a focus on areas of highest use and foot traffic, including terminals and locomotives. In addition to cleaning and disinfecting, railroads took multiple measures beyond the basics of teleworking and canceled or postponed travel, in-person meetings and trainings and also limited access to buildings. In office locations — including train dispatching centers, which are the heartbeat of the network — employees were spread across multiple locations to limit interactions and ensure entire teams didn’t become sick.
Multiple railroads staggered the beginning and end of shift times and held daily safety briefings in smaller groups. Some railroads created new apps and digital solutions to allow employees to complete tasks that would normally be done face-to-face or in highly trafficked areas like terminals. Additionally, the very nature of a 10-foot-wide locomotive cab — and the outdoor work done to maintain the rail network — helped provide natural social distancing.
Other actions of individual railroads provide just a few examples of measures that were taken to protect employees.
Rather than using a computer in terminals and crew lobbies to log the end of their work (known as “tie ups”), BNSF developed technology that allowed employees to do this remotely using iPads. Additionally, employees could ask questions and get up-to-date information through the company intranet and the employee-only app, which has seen a 60 to 70% increase in use during the pandemic.
Given the importance of hand sanitizer in slowing the spread of the virus, railroads found inventive ways to get more to their employees. Union Pacific (UP) sought to boost employee safety while supporting a local business in Omaha. Working with Brickway Brewery & Distillery, UP produced more than 400,000 ounces of hand sanitizer in small squeeze bottles. It took a team effort across the company to gather the raw materials, including rubbing alcohol, hand soap and aloe vera gel and the small bottles and then distribute them to employees.
Kansas City Southern (KCS) revamped operations to check the temperatures of employees at their main locomotive repair shops as they come on duty. The company set up internal channels to receive and respond to employee questions about the virus and help advise on whether they should report to work or how long to stay home. KCS also redoubled normal employee wellbeing support like 1-800 numbers and other resources. Work crews usually are comprised of 40 to 50 people spread out across large distances. But the company divided them into smaller groups, which mitigated the impact of possible virus exposure.
Canadian National (CN) provided a dedicated COVID-19 medical team to their U.S. and Canadian employees. Employees could report any symptoms and get answers about the disease. What’s more, CN deployed employees across five traffic control centers instead of three for normal operations to limit the number of people in each facility.
CSX distributed face coverings to all its locations, prioritizing the most densely populated worksites and those in areas that the CDC indicated to have the highest numbers of positive COVID-19 cases. Company officials also provided an internal website and an employee service center where they answered questions from employees and provided CDC guidance and directions on how to implement new policies.
Additionally, the industry worked closely with FEMA and DHS/CISA as part of the COVID-19 emergency response to procure more than 2.2 million CDC-approved face masks specifically for railroad employees who are deemed essential workers.