May 4, 2020

Although life looks different today because of COVID-19, one thing remains constant; the sound of train whistles from coast-to-coast as freight railroads deliver for America.

These pillars of resiliency that have seen the nation through crises throughout our history are moving the goods to fuel people and places while delivering supplies critical to protecting lives and defeating the virus.

The 140,000-mile freight rail network is a study in resiliency, capable of hauling raw materials and finished goods long distances, especially critical in times of crisis. Nearly 200 years of experience combined with a culture that prioritizes safety and preparedness every day have enabled America’s freight railroads to continue to operate during this unprecedented time.

“Without regular, consistent rail service, we would not be able to meet this paramount need,” said Dow North American Rail Service Leader Mike Gebo. Dow produces chemicals that are used to make disinfectants and personal protective equipment essential to the global fight against the novel coronavirus. Union Pacific hauls these chemicals safely to their manufacturing home.

Grit Meets Preparation

As an essential industry that operates 24 hours a day, every day of the year, freight railroads keep hauling goods during economic downturns, extreme weather events and, yes, national emergencies. The industry privately spends billions of dollars each year on infrastructure improvements and new technology to ensure it can safely and efficiently move freight through any and all of these conditions.

Railroads and their employees have prepared for almost any scenario, and it’s this constant vigilance that allows freight railroads to serve during this pandemic. Freight rail companies have preparedness and response teams that work constantly to keep the network secure and are drawing on what they learned from past crises, including H1N1. Freight rail companies have long maintained and regularly update their pandemic response plans that helped support the industry’s response to COVID-19. Even these have been adapted to meet the pandemic’s unique challenges.

Precautions in Place

Railroads, like companies in most every sector, have adopted procedures, in accordance with CDC guidance, to protect employees during the pandemic. Those able to work from home are doing so, and some companies are even developing new technology to enable employees to better maintain social distancing. BNSF is using iPads to remotely complete tasks that normally are done via communal computers in terminals. Innovation like this is happening in real time.

Some essential tasks — such as loading and unloading rail cars and performing maintenance — cannot be done remotely, so freight rail companies are working with their medical staffs to reduce the risks front-line workers face. Additionally, every Class I railroad is taking steps to more frequently and thoroughly clean their facilities and locomotives. And they expect the same from their vendors, including hotels and transportation providers. Railroads also are spreading employees across more buildings than usual and staggering shift times so fewer people must share common spaces.

Most recently, as the CDC has encouraged Americans to wear face masks to prevent the spread of the virus, railroads have stepped up to supply them to their employees. Norfolk Southern’s sourcing and safety and environmental teams joined forces to procure 135,000 masks. And they’re now working with an Atlanta-based seamstress, who is turning company t-shirts into reusable masks.

These steps — among several others — help to protect railroad employees and ensure that critical freight keeps moving.

“We’re continuing to protect America’s backbone and to work hand-in-hand with our employees to make sure rail operations run smoothly,” said Dave Veschak, a special police agent at CSX. Importantly, though, Veschak said CSX is doing so by prioritizing safety and the health of employees.

Freight railroads were built for this moment, positioned to serve America throughout this crisis — no matter how long it lasts or what it requires — and well beyond.

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