As the COVID-19 situation continues to evolve across the globe, North America’s freight railroads remain focused on safeguarding the health and safety of the rail workforce while working tirelessly to maintain the flow of goods necessary to 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.
Freight Railroads & COVID-19
Recognizing the industry’s responsibility to both the nation and their people, railroads maintain and routinely review their pandemic response plans that 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 been working together to update and adapt their plans to specifically address the need to contain, mitigate and respond to the coronavirus outbreak in line with most recent recommendations coming out of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).
The industry holds daily calls among cross-functional teams to share information and best practices to keep their railroad employees and their families — as well as the larger community — safe. Railroads are also in constant communication with the federal partners at the U.S. Department of Transportation, the Department of Homeland Security and the White House as well as state and local officials on evolving public health developments and efforts to contain the spread of the virus.
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 spatial distancing and mitigation strategies, and company-specific protection and mitigation efforts through a variety of dedicated channels.
- Limiting possible exposure by screening workers pre-shift where feasible, directing employees to avoid contamination “hot spots,” enabling employees to enter records remotely, avoiding face-to-face briefings where possible, and providing access to railroads’ licensed health professions to assist with questions and keep teams updated as the situation evolves.
- Expanding the frequency of cleaning and sanitation with EPA-approved products and 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. Railroads are making sanitizers and wipes broadly available across the network to employees.
- Expanding benefits by broadening insurance coverage for virus testing and telemedicine, and in some cases offering paid leave for virus-related absences.
- Limiting group settings by conducting meetings and briefings via phone or radio, postponing training classes and spreading out or isolating work areas. Additional efforts for frontline employees include allowing single occupancy hotel accommodations, staggering breaks, limiting crew members per locomotive and motor vehicle and limiting group dining by making to-go options available and, in some cases, providing financial stipends for takeout meals.
- Restricting access to mission-critical locations like operations and dispatching centers to only essential staff who must be present to perform their duties and restricting vendor presence on railroad property.
- Expanding social distancing by limiting movement around the network by individual employees and activating secondary dispatch and operation locations.
- Transitioning employees to telework where possible to reduce density, including those not directly involved in train operations and at headquarters.
- Instituting new measures to limit spread by restricting domestic and international employee air travel, selectively allowing personal vehicle use and coordinating with suppliers and vendors to ensure they are also taking proper protections.
- Adhering to CDC guidelines by requiring employees to follow CDC guidance for self-protection; directing sick employees to stay home and seek medical guidance; and instructing workers to self-isolate if they have been exposed to someone who tests positive for COVID-19 and to notify their designated railroad contact to identify other railroad employees who may have been exposed. Railroads are also following CDC and local health departments’ recommendations to monitor impacted employees as well as implementing 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 but rather 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 (ASLRRA) joined with rail labor in calling on Congress to provide rail workers affected by the coronavirus with the same vital protections they extended to other impacted Americans in the first COVID-19 stimulus package. Of note, H.R. 748 includes the following railroad specific provisions:
- Waives the 7-day waiting period for filing a sickness or unemployment claim with the RRB and provides $50 million to cover the costs of providing these additional benefits
- Increases unemployment benefits through an additional $1,200 bi-weekly benefit and provides $425 million to cover the costs of providing these additional benefits through July 31, 2020
- Allows RRB to access approximately $130 million of remaining American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds to provide extended benefits through December 31, 2020
- Supplies $5 million to RRB for additional administrative costs
Ensuring rail employees can maintain social distance and safely continue operations
In response to this unprecedented crisis, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) solicited comments from the railroad community on what flexibility may be necessary to respond to the COVID-19 outbreak. The AAR, ASLRRA and APTA joined together to ask for reasonable, limited flexibility to enable them to implement CDC social distancing guidance and adapt operations should they face manpower challenges due to the coronavirus.
At the end of March, the FRA granted a narrow set of waivers that are to be exercised only to address issues arising due to the COVID-19 pandemic and will sunset once the crisis has passed. The emergency relief granted to the railroads due to the pandemic can be divided into two categories:
- To enable railroad employees to abide by social distancing requirements and guidelines.
- To provide relief from certain regulations in the event railroads face employee shortages due to employee illness or quarantine.
At this time, the only waivers being utilized by the Class I railroads along with Genesee and Wyoming railroads, Pan Am Railways, and Amtrak are to implement the CDC’s social distancing guidelines aimed at reducing the risk of transmitting the coronavirus. To maintain social distancing practices and protect railroad employees, these waivers will must remain in place for the foreseeable future. Relief from the regulations granted for social distancing purposes will enable the 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 the railroads provide to their customers and the American public. AAR is committed to working with the FRA to ensure that railroads continue to provide a high level of service to their customers, and to do so safely and with the interests of their employees paramount.
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, most 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
- Energy products for generating electricity
- Fertilizer for growing crops
- Grain and corn for cattle feed
- Municipal waste
- Oil for heating and gasoline
- Rail cars for transporting food products
- Retail products such as toilet paper and cleaning supplies
- Wheat used by bakeries to make bread/pasta that are increasingly in need
Taken together, it is clear why railroads are considered critical infrastructure by the federal government and 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 150,000 employees keeping the rail network running. Our diverse and skilled employees are dedicated to ensuring railroads remain a critical link to American businesses and society.
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AAR Fact Sheets
In an ongoing 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 that prioritizes safety and preparedness every day have enabled America’s freight railroads to continue to operate 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.
Rail employees are staying safe and healthy
The only way that railroads can keep delivering for America is to first ensure the health and safety of their unwavering and dedicated employees. 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 is developing technology that will allow 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. What’s more, CN is deploying employees across five traffic control centers, instead of three for normal operations, to limit the number of people in each facility.
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 are turning 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.”
The vast rail network makes stay-at-home orders possible
Although the country is opening up to varying degrees, recent polls show that some 80% of Americans favor continuing strict guidelines on sheltering in place. This necessary stasis is only achievable because of the robust and resilient freight rail industry and its privately funded, 140,000-mile network.
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.
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.
Freight rail will help revive the economy
As the economy stirs back to life, freight railroads will play their vital role serving customers large and small across almost all industrial sectors. During this recovery phase, America’s freight railroads’ steadfast commitment will remain clear as they transport what the country needs to return to normal, including food, chemicals for cleaning water, consumer goods, construction materials and motor vehicles.
CSX, for example, has put in place robust 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.”
Americans are thanking railroaders on social media
Americans are creating an online chorus of gratitude to the often unsung and unseen heroes of freight rail . From proud family members to industry partners, people are using the hashtag #ThankARailroader to show their appreciation of the nation’s dedicated rail employees who continue delivering during these difficult times.