Union Pacific's delays grow again Crew shortages foil efforts to sort out logjam


December 31, 1997|By BLOOMBERG NEWS

OMAHA, Neb. -- Union Pacific Corp.'s railroad delays lengthened for a second straight week as crew shortages thwarted efforts to resolve a six-month freight logjam.

The added delays come as the National Transportation Safety Board said it will hold hearings in Texas early next year into a string of accidents on Union Pacific during the summer and fall that caused seven deaths.

The railroad's latest report to federal regulators showed that train speeds slowed last week, leading to longer trip times. That caused the number of blocked track turnoffs, or sidings, and main-line crossings to more than double, further hurting efforts to clear delayed cars.

Delays on the largest U.S. railroad are the worst in more than 25 years, costing retailers, manufacturers, mines and agricultural shippers more than $100 million a month, according to testimony before the transportation board.

Union Pacific said "a much higher than anticipated number of train and engine crews remained off duty" after the railroad's one-day Christmas shutdown. The railroad also anticipates more crew shortages this week because of the New Year's holiday.

Railroad crews can refuse job assignments. While they are usually replaced by workers with less seniority, the massive overtime pay that the logjam has generated has made it easier for more workers to reject assignments around the holidays. Union Pacific said it planned to hire 950 train crew members this year. As of early December, it had hired and trained 445 crew members and was training another 200. The railroad said it plans to hire another 500 crew members during 1998.

A key measure of the railroad's progress, the total number of cars on its 36,000-mile system, grew again last week, by about 2,500 cars to 339,335, the most since the first week of November.

Union Pacific officials have said the maximum number of cars the system can efficiently hold is 310,000; at the logjam's worst there were more than 356,000 cars in the system.

The growing car inventory leads to more blocked sidings, which in turn impede train movements and lead to additional delays, which result in more cars in the system.

While the railroad counted on a usual year-end lull in freight shipments to help clear the excess cars out of its system, the delays caused by the jam coupled with the booming domestic economy to push regular shipments into the usual slow period.

Average train speed declined to 13.9 miles per hour, from 14.1 mph the week before; in December 1996 average train speed was 17.7 mph. Blocked sidings grew to 197 from 96 the week before, while blocked mains jumped to 18 from seven.

The NTSB hearings will probably be held in Houston in late February or early March, a board spokesman said.

Houston has been at the center of the traffic logjam, and several of the accidents occurred around that city.

A string of accidents in the summer that led to the seven deaths caused an intensive two-week safety inquiry by the Federal Railroad Administration. In September, the board said it found "widespread safety deficiencies" that led to "a fundamental breakdown" in safety procedures on the Union Pacific.

Two crashes in October led to another safety investigation, the day after Union Pacific signed an agreement with its train operating unions that was designed to reduce worker fatigue.

Pub Date: 12/31/97

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