Freight Railroads & COVID-19

North America’s freight railroads are safeguarding the health and safety of the rail workforce while maintaining the flow of goods that preserve public health and sustain families. These efforts include delivering chlorine-based disinfectants for water, enabling e-commerce, transporting food and moving energy products to support electricity demands.

How America's Freight Railroads are Responding

Railroads recognize they are responsible to both the nation and their workforce. They routinely review their pandemic response plans, which have addressed other events including the H1N1 outbreak. Since news of COVID-19’s spread in early January 2020, railroads and their Chief Medical Officers have adapted their plans to specifically address the need to contain, mitigate and respond to the coronavirus outbreak. These plans are in line with most recent recommendations coming out of the CDC.

The industry holds calls with cross-functional teams to share information and best practices. These calls help keep railroad employees, their families and the larger community safe. Railroads also constantly communicate with multiple partners to stay abreast of evolving public health developments and efforts to stop the spread of coronavirus. These partners include the U.S. Department of Transportation, the Department of Homeland Security, White House, and state and local officials.

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Protecting employee health and well-being.

Freight railroads are taking significant precautions to protect the health and well-being of their employees. These efforts include:

  • Providing timely and accurate information on virus-related news, CDC-recommended workplace social distancing strategies. Other information includes company-specific protection and mitigation efforts.
  • Limiting possible exposure. These efforts include  screening workers pre-shift where feasible; directing employees to avoid contamination “hot spots;” remote record keeping; avoiding face-to-face briefings where possible; and providing access to railroads’ licensed health professionals to answer questions.
  • Expanding the frequency of cleaning and sanitation. Railroads use EPA-approved products in accordance with CDC recommendations in maintenance facilities, railroad headquarters, dispatch and operations centers, on locomotives and rail equipment and railroad-operated sleeping facilities and in railroad-operated motor vehicles. Railroads have also requested enhanced cleaning of hotels and motor vehicles used by railroad contractors. Employees have access to sanitizers and wipes.
  • Expanding benefits. Railroads are broadening insurance coverage for virus testing and telemedicine. In some cases, they offer  paid leave for virus-related absences.
  • Limiting group settings. Railroads conduct meetings and briefings via phone or radio. They have postponed training classes and have spread out or isolated work areas. For frontline employees, railroads allow single occupancy hotel accommodations. They have staggered breaks and limited crew members per locomotive and motor vehicle. Railroads have also limited group dining by making to-go options available and, in some cases, providing financial stipends for takeout meals.
  • Restricting access to mission-critical locations. Only essential staff who must be present to perform their duties are allowed in operations and dispatching centers. Vendors are restricted from railroad property.
  • Expanding social distancing. Individual employees are limited on where they can be across the network. Railroads have activated secondary dispatch and operation locations.
  • Transitioning employees to telework where possible to reduce density. This includes employees not directly involved in train operations and at headquarters.
  • Instituting new measures to limit spread. Railroads have restricted domestic and international employee air travel. They are selectively allowing personal vehicle use and coordinating with suppliers and vendors to ensure they are also taking proper protections.
  • Adhering to CDC guidelines. Railroads require sick employees to stay at home and seek medical guidance. If an employee has been exposed to someone with coronavirus, they must self-isolate and notify their designated railroad contact to identify other railroad employees who may have been exposed. Railroads also follow CDC and local health departments’ recommendations to monitor impacted employees as well as implement approved cleaning and decontamination protocols for any affected facility and/or equipment.

Calling on Congress to provide relief for rail workers affected by COVID-19.

Unlike the average American worker, railroaders do not receive unemployment benefits through state-administered programs. Instead, they receive these benefits through the Railroad Retirement Board’s (RRB) Railroad Unemployment Insurance Program (RUI). As a united front, the AAR and the American Short Line Railroad Association joined with rail labor to urge Congress to provide rail workers with the same vital protections they have extended other impacted Americans in COVID-19 stimulus packages, including:

  • Waiving the 7-day waiting period for filing a sickness or unemployment claim with the RRB;
  • Providing equal levels of extended and enhanced unemployment benefits;
  • Supplying RRB with additional funding to support the Agency as it continues in this expanded telework posture and to aid in the move toward paperless processing, self-service portals, and other critical IT enhancements; and
  • Removing RUI benefits from the impacts of sequestration during the duration of the national emergency declaration as RUI is the only unemployment insurance program subjected to these reductions.

The AAR appreciates Congress’ willingness to extend these benefits and protections to its essential rail workforce and encourages Congress to continue to provide parity in subsequent COVID-19 stimulus packages.

Ensuring rail employees can maintain social distance and safely continue operations.

The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) solicited comments from the railroad community to see what flexibility may be needed to respond to the COVID-19 outbreak. The AAR, ASLRRA and APTA asked for reasonable, limited flexibility to implement CDC social distancing guidance and adapt operations should they face manpower challenges due to the pandemic.

At the end of March, the FRA granted a narrow set of waivers. Railroads can only use these to address issues due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The waivers will sunset once the crisis has passed. The emergency relief granted to the railroads due to the pandemic are in two categories:

  1. Enable railroad employees to follow social distancing requirements and guidelines.
  2. Provide relief from certain regulations in the event railroads face employee shortages due to illness or quarantine.

At this time, Class I railroads, Genesee and Wyoming railroads, Pan Am Railways and Amtrak are only using the waivers that allow employees to follow CDC’s social distancing guidelines. To maintain social distancing practices and protect railroad employees, these waivers must remain in place for the foreseeable future. Relief from the regulations granted for social distancing purposes will allow railroads and their employees to maintain safe workplace practices consistent with social distancing requirements and guidance.

Railroads have been careful to exercise the waivers granted in response to the pandemic only to the extent necessary to protect railroad employees and maintain the essential services they provide their customers and the American public. AAR will work the FRA to ensure freight railroads — and their essential employees —continue to safely provide high levels of service to their customers.

Continuing to keep critical goods moving.

America’s freight railroads play a critical role in nearly every industrial, wholesale, retail and resource-based sector of our economy. For example, railroads typically originate roughly 60,000 carloads of food and agricultural products per week. Additionally, many products sold at retail providers such as Target or Walmart get there with the help of rail intermodal. Some of the critical goods railroads and their workers are moving as the nation confronts the COVID-19 pandemic include:

  • Chemicals required for medicines and food packaging; chlorine-based disinfectants for treating water; and energy products for generating electricity
  • Fertilizer for growing crops; food products that end up on store shelves; wheat used by bakeries to make bread/pasta; corn and other grains for animal feed
  • Municipal waste; oil for heating and gasoline; and retail products such as toilet paper and cleaning supplies

Taken together, it’s clear why the federal government considers railroads critical infrastructure. It’s also clear why they are called upon to operate continuously to help ensure human health, safety and economic security. It is during times like these we are especially grateful for the roughly 135,000 employees keeping the rail network running. Our diverse and skilled employees are dedicated to keeping railroads a critical link to American businesses and society.

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Rail Employees Should Have Prioritized Access to COVID-19 Vaccines

Our nation’s ability to overcome the adversity stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic depends, in part, upon the resilience and integrity of our transportation networks. The rail industry ensures the sustained efficiency of supply chains, delivering the commodities and transporting the workers that protect and further the health, safety, and well-being of Americans in their daily lives.

As state and local authorities formulate their vaccine distribution strategies, they should acknowledge the rail industry’s crucial role in keeping supply chains and the economy functioning throughout the pandemic and provide its essential workforce with access to COVID-19 vaccines, consistent with the prioritization set forth by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Railroad employees are essential critical infrastructure workers.

In March, the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) issued Guidance on the Essential Critical Infrastructure Workforce that identified the work performed by rail workers as duties and services essential to the functioning of our nation’s critical infrastructure during the pandemic.

In the most recent version of that guidance, CISA called on state and local authorities to consider essential workers in the allocation of limited resources, including vaccines when they become available. In addition, the United States Surface Transportation Board, which is the economic regulator of the rail industry, citing CISA’s guidance and the cross-jurisdictional nature of railroad operations, urged state and local authorities “to recognize the importance of railroad operations and to support the ability of railroads and their supply chain partners to contribute to the national welfare.”

Railroads are proud of their employees, whose expertise range from operating trains to emergency response, as they work tirelessly to maintain the flow of products and materials needed to preserve public health, sustain families, and keep essential businesses in operation. Throughout this pandemic, railroads have diligently protected their employees’ health and safety, adhering to CDC guidance for mitigating the risk of exposure to COVID-19, including incorporating social distancing, implementing rigorous cleaning protocols, and using protective devices during their operations. Just as the distribution of PPE prioritized these dedicated professionals to ensure the continuity of supply chains, state and local authorities must now ensure that these same critical infrastructure workers have prioritized access to COVID-19 vaccines.

Public health agencies support prioritizing access to COVID-19 vaccines for railroad employees.

The CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) has rightly set as the highest priority for vaccinations (Phase 1a) medical and health care workers and residents and workers at long-term care facilities.  Significantly, ACIP has indicated that essential workers, with specific reference to those employed in the transportation sector, be prioritized at the next highest level (Phase 1b).

This level of prioritization, supported by both versions of the CDC’s COVID-19 Vaccination Program Interim Operational Guidance for Jurisdictions Playbook and by the recommendations of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, recognizes that the positions held and work performed by these employees and contractors encompass essential duties and services that meet the imperative of ensuring the functioning of critical infrastructure.

Prioritizing rail employees’ access to COVID-19 vaccines protects against further economic recession.

Providing rail workers with prioritized access to COVID-19 vaccines would keep Americans, and the goods, commodities, and materials they need, moving and ensure continuity of functions critical to public health and safety, as well as economic and national security.

During the second quarter of 2020, total U.S. rail carloads declined by 25% as compared to the same quarter in 2019, the biggest quarterly decline on record, and rail intermodal traffic fell by 13%, as the nation endured COVID-related economic shutdowns and their associated drops in consumer spending and industrial output.

Throughout the disruptions to numerous supply chains experienced this year, railroads have worked collaboratively with their customers to meet the changing demands on their operations and have continued to provide high levels of safe, reliable service. Preserving the health of the rail workforce would be an important strategic step in helping to ensure the continuity of supply chains and avoiding a second economic downturn due to COVID-19.

In a blog article series, we look at how the freight rail network is always moving for all of us — from the unwavering dedication of its resilient workforce to the adaptability of its operations. Explore more below on how:

Railroads were built for this.

Nearly 200 years of experience — combined with a culture of that prioritizes safety and preparedness — have kept America’s freight railroads to operating during this unprecedented time.

Union Pacific’s service to Dow Chemicals highlights freight rail’s capabilities. “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.

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Rail employees are staying safe and healthy.

The only way that railroads can keep delivering for America is to keep their dedicated employees healthy. From following CDC procedures to social distancing, railroads are safeguarding the nation’s essential rail workers.

For example, 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 lets employees to do this remotely using iPads. Additionally, employees can 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.

Meanwhile, Canadian National (CN) provides a dedicated COVID-19 medical team to their U.S. and Canadian employees. Employees can report any symptoms and get answers about the disease. CN deployed employees across five traffic control centers, instead of three for normal operations, to limit the number of people in each facility.

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Critical supplies are getting to hotspots.

Whether its getting protective gear to frontline hospital staff or food to grocery stores, freight railroads continue to swiftly respond as COVID-19 creates new areas of need throughout the country.

One example is how key manufacturers  turned to Canadian Pacific (CP) to help with spiking demand for essential supplies. “Shipping demand is strong for food and essential products, grain and fertilizers,” the company recently said. “The 13,000-strong CP family is working diligently to keep our customers’ supply chains moving effectively and efficiently.”

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The vast rail network makes stay-at-home orders possible.

Freight railroads help people stay at home by moving the goods we all rely on every day. To ensure that freight transportation is ready for where it is needed most, Norfolk Southern surveyed shipping customers as the pandemic began to better understand how COVID-19 and shelter-in-place orders might impact transportation requirements. The company then integrated that feedback into updated transportation plans.

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Your quarantine comforts started on a train.

Whether it’s peanut butter for your child’s hundredth PB&J, a comfier chair for your makeshift office or more disinfectant wipes, freight railroads are moving what helps keep you safe — and sane — as you stay at home to help stop the spread of COVID-19.

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Freight rail will help revive the economy.

As the economy stirs back to life, freight railroads are playing a vital role by serving customers large and small  across almost all industrial sectors. During the recovery phase, freight railroads will remain committed to transporting what the country needs to return to normal. This includes food, chemicals for cleaning water, consumer goods, construction materials and motor vehicles.

CSX, for example, uses business continuity plans to minimize potential operational impact, preparing the company well for the recovery period. “Our continuity plans include backup facilities where business-critical functions are able to quickly transition and continue seamless train operations,” the company recently said.

Kansas City Southern also recognizes the impact railroads have on the overall economy, noting that railroads “play a very important role in keeping supply chains flowing and keeping people in jobs. Our purpose, among other things, is to make a meaningful contribution to the economic growth and prosperity of the nations and communities we serve.”

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Railroaders take pride in moving America forward.

Now more than ever, rail workers are proud of the work they do to serve the businesses and communities that rely on freight rail. Hear from just seven of these resilient employees about what being a railroader means to them.

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The auto industry revved back to life.

Freight rail’s customer-first approach, operational expertise and past investments helped the auto industry rev back to life as auto plants came back online after being shuttered due to the coronavirus pandemic.

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Thank You to America's Freight Railroaders