Are railroads entering a new era?

03 February 23

Railroad operators have reached a critical junction. Innovative solutions are required to not only address the labor shortage, but also to future-proof companies so they have the right resources for years to come.

It’s a time to look beyond short-term profits towards strategic investments that deliver network efficiencies, sustainability, and a better employee value proposition (EVP).

Labor attraction and retention

It would be fair to describe the past three years as more of a rollercoaster than a rail journey. The unprecedented challenges created by the pandemic – lockdowns followed by spikes in consumer demand, supply chain bottlenecks, delays, and cancellations – highlighted the impact of staffing cuts and other systemic issues. The threat of the first nationwide strike by railway workers in 30 years, averted by the President’s actions in December, was seen by some analysts and journalists as an ominous sign that the current operating model is irreparably broken and that new railroad solutions are desperately needed.

A person using a device to test a component

Balancing the demands of shareholders and the principles of PSR with the demands of a large workforce in a modern and connected world is an ongoing challenge that railroad companies must address. They need to position themselves as the employers of choice. Railroad employees are unsurprisingly tired of working longer shifts, frequently away from home, as a result of the relentless drive to make railroads leaner.

There is a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel for operators struggling to attract and retain rail staff. In an article for Time magazine, journalist Alana Semuels points out that, after massive workforce cuts over the past six years, railroads are now doing everything they can to recruit new workers. Semuels quotes a recent statement from Association of American Railroads President and CEO Ian Jefferies: “Railroads’ recruitment efforts may be starting to bear fruit. After offering thousands of dollars in signing bonuses and incentives to workers to relocate to regions experiencing demand, employment among Class I railroads—the biggest companies—was up 4.2% between February and July [2022].”

These types of incentives show that Class I railroads are recognising that employee retention is important. Taking a balanced approach to hiring has also been reported in other industry press, such as Railroad Weekly. These emerging trends indicate that the continual recruitment and then furloughing of workers may be coming to an end and is creating a firmer base of expertise for railroads to build upon.

Retaining experienced employees is, rightly so, a priority but it is also important to acknowledge that technology can play a role when fostering talent.

Remote working and railroad technology

There is still clearly a long way to go. We need to adapt to the changing HR landscape by empowering railroad workers to work smarter rather than harder, so we can:

  • Improve job satisfaction.

  • Enhance skill sets.

  • Provide better career progression.

  • Anticipate future labor requirements.

We already have the technology to enable remote access, which will reduce the amount of time engineers and operations staff need to spend away from home on site visits, as well as freeing up staff from mundane routine tasks to spend time on more rewarding, more skilled work.

Remote Condition Monitoring (RCM) benefits both railroad operators and their employees, improving staff safety as well as boosting efficiencies.

Operators are able to capture data from all rail assets and transfer it to the cloud, improving visibility across their entire network, and enabling non-safety critical maintenance tasks to be carried out remotely.

A rail worker is able to securely and remotely access the precise information they need, whenever and wherever they need it, via a centralized data hub. They can conduct off-site maintenance checks, quickly track down the source of failures, conduct repairs more efficiently once on site, and use the power of data to predict failures before they occur.

Combined with new technologies being applied to computer-aided dispatching, railroad operators are using RCM to improve working conditions at the same time as driving efficiencies and ongoing profitability.

Tracsis is the leading provider of software-based rail automation solutions. Download our Automated Rail Solutions guide.