So there are few hiccups in the US economy right now. James Foote, the chief executive of CSX, one of the largest railroads in the US, put it this way during the earnings call yesterday (transcript by Seeking Alpha):
“I’ve never seen any kind of a thing like this in the transportation environment in my entire career where everything seems to be going sideways at the same time,” he said.
“In January when I got on this [earnings] call, I said we were hiring because we anticipated growth. I fully expected that by now we would have about 500 new T&E [train and engine] employees on the property,” he said. “No way did I or anybody else in the last six months realize how difficult it was going to be to try and get people to come to work these days.”...
...And this comes after railroads had spent six years shedding employees in order to tickle Wall Street analysts and pump up stock prices. The North American Class 1 freight railroads combined – BNSF, Union Pacific, Norfolk Southern, CSX, Canadian National, Kansas City Southern, and Canadian Pacific – have tried to streamline their operations, using fewer but longer trains and making other changes, including under the strategy of “precision scheduled railroading,” implemented first by Canadian National, then by CSX.
The resulting deterioration in service triggered numerous complaints from shippers. But one of the big benefits was that the workforce could be slashed, which fattened the profit margins at the railroads. Wall Street analysts loved it, and it was good for railroad stocks. By now, precision scheduled railroading has become the new religion at all Class 1 railroads except at BNSF, which has not officially adopted it, at least not completely.
In the process, over the past six years, the Class 1 railroads have axed 33% of their workers through layoffs and attrition. According to the Surface of Transportation Board (STB), an independent federal agency that oversees freight railroads, the Class 1 railroads slashed their headcount from 174,000 workers in April 2015 to 116,000 workers in June 2021.
The results of the efforts to hire people back this year are barely visible in the chart – that risible uptick in employment over the past few months. Turns out, it’s a lot easier to cut workers than it is to suddenly hire workers: