Rail industry on track to expand

Freight: As business moves from road to rail, companies plan to hire more than 80,000 workers in the next six years.

October 21, 2004|By Stacey Hirsh | Stacey Hirsh,SUN STAFF

Thousands more people may soon be working on the railroad.

With the economy picking up and an increasing demand for freight transportation, rail businesses plan to hire more than 80,000 workers over the next six years, according to the Association of American Railroads. But finding enough qualified people for the positions could be challenging, experts said, because the work is physically demanding.

"Railroads are experiencing, for the first time in modern history, significant shifts from the highway to the rails because of highway congestion, higher fuel prices and difficulty among trucking companies to attract and retain drivers," said Frank Wilner, a spokesman for the United Transportation Union, which represents about 50,000 rail workers.

The effects are likely to be felt across Maryland. CSX and Norfolk Southern, which both have operations in the state, plan to expand their national work forces, including in Maryland.

CSX expects to hire 2,150 workers this year and 2,300 next year. The company's work force already is increasing, with 33,713 workers in April 2003 and 35,579 in April 2004, said Misty Skipper, a CSX spokeswoman. The company, which operates in 23 states, Washington, D.C., and Canada, employs 1,316 people in Maryland.

Norfolk Southern - which employs 225 in Baltimore and Hagerstown - will add about 2,000 workers a year for the next four or five years to its work force across 22 states, said Rudy Husband, director of public relations for Norfolk Southern.

Neither company could break down how many of those hires would be in Maryland.

"We're seeing some very positive growth in the rail freight business, and obviously when you have growth, you need people to move it and to fix the equipment and tracks," Husband said.

Once a booming American industry with 1.8 million employees during World War I, railroad employment peaked in 1920 and then began to dwindle as competition from other forms of transportation grew. Also, government regulations on the industry became more stringent.

Employment was down to about 174,000 by last year, the most recent figures available from the Association of American Railroads. The worker increase expected this year will be only the second significant jump in a decade, the association said.

In addition to an uptick in both the economy and the demand for freight transportation, experts said the railroad industry expansion comes in part because of a growth in international trade, where railroads can be used to move goods to and from the ports. Also, legislation during recent years lowered the retirement age of railroad workers to 60 from 62, which means an already mature industry will have more openings even sooner than planned.

But recruiting workers to fill those openings may not be easy. Though average pay for rail workers is about $62,000 plus benefits, the jobs can be trying. It's around-the-clock work, experts said, and there are strict requirements, including random drug tests.

"It can be a physically demanding job," Husband said. "We move the freight 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year - through hot days, rainy days, snowy days. So people are going to be outside working in the elements, and ... there are times that people are going to be working at night, weekends and holidays."

Other harsh working conditions make the job unappealing for potential hires, said Wilner of the United Transportation Union. Many crews are forced to work without days off and with infrequent rest periods, he said. Some workers are on call at all times, rather than knowing ahead of time when they will work, and others have only 10 hours between shifts - leaving them with barely enough time to commute home, eat, unwind and sleep for a few hours, Wilner said.

Wilner said he has been to some recruiting events where "as many as 50 percent of those that apply and are initially accepted either drop out on their own within the first few months or are deemed unacceptable because they just don't have the makeup to handle this kind of a schedule."

Though those in the industry say recruiting is a challenge, they are still expecting to have thousands of jobs to fill in the coming years - up to 140,000 during the next decade.

Edward R. Hamberger, president and chief executive officer of the Association of American Railroads, said that as part of a cooperative effort with the trucking industry, rail cars will take 10 million trucks off the road this year by moving containers of goods on the railroad instead of the back of a tractor-trailer.

United Parcel Service, the rail industry's biggest customer, will spend about $750 million this year moving their brown trailers by train.

"If [a] ground package is going 750 miles or more, it is more economical and efficient for us to load the trailers, move them to the railhead [and] put them on a flatcar," than it is to drive them, said Norman Black, a UPS spokesman.

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