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Examining the issues behind a possible rail strike

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

For more on a possible railway strike, we turn to Justin Roczniak. He's a co-host of the podcast "Well There's Your Problem" about engineering disasters. Justin, sick leave is the sticking point in negotiations to avoid a strike. Why do railways reject this seemingly simple request?

JUSTIN ROCZNIAK: So this has been - it's been a big problem for a long time, especially since, you know, over the past, let's say, five or six years, you've had workforce attrition. You know, you did have an amount of sick leave and amount of time off that was predictable. But as railroads have adopted this thing called precision schedule railroading and mostly adopted the bad parts of it and not the good parts, all of a sudden, everyone's on call all the time.

MARTINEZ: What is that, precision adjusted railroading?

ROCZNIAK: So your precision scheduled railroading is essentially - you start to run trains rather than the old-fashioned way where, you know, you run a freight train that goes from one rail yard to the next one. The cars get, you know, switched around each time. Now you run the train a much longer distance all at once, and that increases your average train speed. That means you have better equipment utilization in terms of locomotives and railroad cars. It's really good for efficiency in a lot of ways. The issue is it also requires you to invest in infrastructure and do things that keep the trains running reliably. And that's the hard part that railroad executives didn't want to do. They wanted to get the good stuff, the good stuff that made money and not the stuff that made them spend money, you know.

MARTINEZ: And what are the bad parts? Yeah, what are the stuff that makes them spend money?

ROCZNIAK: You got to put more tracks down. You got to put more tracks down. You got to - you have to invest in stuff like signals. You have to have - you know, you have to have stuff that makes the trains run reliably.

MARTINEZ: And is this putting a lot more on the workers, a lot more just wear and tear, a lot more hours, a lot more on them to make sure that this happens efficiently?

ROCZNIAK: Absolutely. I mean, it's been - it has been - and especially in the last five years, but it has been a very long process that got us here. You know, it has very much put the burden on workers to, you know, start showing up at weird hours to take over, like, these trains that are not running as reliably as they used to or these trains that are, like - how do you say it...

MARTINEZ: Bigger, right? I mean, is it me, Justin, or are just trains bigger than they were before?

ROCZNIAK: Absolutely. Trains did get much bigger in the past couple years. There's this new concept - not this new concept, but there is this concept of distributed power, which means, you know, trains can be, like, three miles long where they used to be, like, a mile long. And that has been part of the operating model now for probably two or three years now, at least here on the East Coast. On the West Coast, it's been a thing for a longer amount of time.

MARTINEZ: Justin, is this why railroad workers are drawing a line in the sand over these negotiations?

ROCZNIAK: Yeah, it's - you know, it has become impossible to have a normal life and also work for the railroad. And it's - frankly, I think it's impressive that the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees is voting this down because they're not the ones who have the big scheduling problem. It's Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen and BLET. And they're the - or excuse me, SMART TD - those are the last people to vote. Those are the people who have the really big problem. You know, some people have talked about this as like the, you know, the golden handcuffs, you know, because you have great pay, you have great benefits, you have so on and so forth. You can't use them. And so this is why railroad workers have really - a lot of folks are not happy about this agreement. And, you know, it was - it staved off the strike, but it did not solve the problem, the tentative agreement. And it's - it is a - you know, it's a situation where, you know, these workers, you know, they deserve more. They deserve to be able to take time off. On the current system of taking time off - even though they have more time off under this agreement, the current system they have is - you know, it's very easy for the railroads to deny them the time off that they are owed.

MARTINEZ: That's Justin Roczniak, co-host of the podcast "Well There's Your Problem." Justin, thanks a lot.

ROCZNIAK: Oh, no problem. Thanks for having me on. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.