North America’s freight railroads have played a critical role in the COVID-19 pandemic — from delivering PPE, food and consumer goods throughout the height of 2020 to supporting economic recovery and working through supply chain challenges today.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, railroads already had pandemic response plans in place, which they routinely review. Beginning in early January 2020, railroads and their Chief Medical Officers adapted their plans to specifically address the need to contain, mitigate and respond to the coronavirus outbreak in line with CDC recommendations.

The industry held calls with cross-functional teams to share information and best practices. These calls helped keep railroad employees, their families and the larger community safe. Railroads also constantly communicated 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, the White House, and state and local officials.

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 more than 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 moved as the nation confronted the COVID-19 pandemic included:

  • 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 considered railroads critical infrastructure. It’s also clear why they were called upon to operate continuously to help ensure human health, safety and economic security. It is during times like the COVID-19 pandemic we are especially grateful for the employees keeping the rail network running. Our diverse and skilled employees are dedicated to keeping railroads a critical link to American businesses and society.

Freight railroads took significant precautions to protect the health and well-being of their employees, including:

  • Provided timely and accurate information on virus-related news, CDC-recommended workplace social distancing strategies. Other information included company-specific protection and mitigation efforts.
  • Limited possible exposure. These efforts included 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.
  • Expanded the frequency of cleaning and sanitation. Railroads used 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 also requested enhanced cleaning of hotels and motor vehicles used by railroad contractors.
  • Expanded benefits. Railroads broadened insurance coverage for virus testing and telemedicine. In some cases, they offered paid leave for virus-related absences.
  • Limited group settings. Railroads conducted meetings and briefings via phone or radio. They postponed training classes and have spread out or isolated work areas. For frontline employees, railroads allowed single-occupancy hotel accommodations. They staggered breaks and limited crew members per locomotive and motor vehicle. Railroads also limited group dining by making to-go options available and, in some cases, providing financial stipends for takeout meals.
  • Restricted access to mission-critical locations. Only essential staff who had to be present to perform their duties were allowed in operations and dispatching centers. Vendors were restricted from railroad property.
  • Expanded social distancing. Individual employees were limited on where they could be across the network. Railroads activated secondary dispatch and operation locations.
  • Transitioned employees to telework where possible to reduce density. This included employees not directly involved in train operations and at headquarters.
  • Instituting new measures to limit spread. Railroads restricted domestic and international employee air travel. They selectively allowed personal vehicle use and coordinated with suppliers and vendors to ensure they were also taking proper protections.
  • Adhered to CDC guidelines. Railroads required sick employees to stay at home and seek medical guidance. If an employee was exposed to someone with coronavirus, they had to self-isolate and notify their designated railroad contact to identify other railroad employees who may have been exposed. Railroads also followed CDC and local health departments’ recommendations to monitor impacted employees, as well as implemented approved cleaning and decontamination protocols for any affected facility and/or equipment.

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.

In 2020, 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 2020, the FRA granted a narrow set of waivers, which railroads could only use to address issues due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The emergency relief enabled railroad employees to follow social distancing requirements and guidelines. They also provided relief from certain regulations in the event railroads face employee shortages due to illness or quarantine. Class I railroads, Genesee and Wyoming railroads, Pan Am Railways and Amtrak only used the waivers that allow employees to follow CDC’s social distancing guidelines.