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Why a $600 million herd of iron horses has been put out to pasture in Salt Lake City

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Union Pacific locomotives sit idle in a rail yard north of downtown Salt Lake City on Tuesday, April 7, 2020.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — If a railroad locomotive is an iron horse, then a vast herd of them has been put out to pasture in Salt Lake City.

They’re lined up, nose to tail, waiting to go nowhere — at least for now. By some estimates as many as 200 railroad engines — each one costing about $3 million — have been sidelined over the last year or so in a Union Pacific rail yard just north of downtown Salt Lake City.

And it has nothing at all to do with the new coronavirus.

A company spokeswoman for Union Pacific refused to answer detailed questions about the unusual sight, but Kristen South wrote in an email to the Deseret News that the engines are “being stored” due to a companywide efficiency program that kicked in during 2019.

To the labor union representing Union Pacific’s engineers and conductors, the idling of so many powerful engines highlights an ongoing threat to jobs and a growing concern about railroad safety.

“They’re basically doubling the size of trains, so they don’t need as many locomotives,” said Jay Seegmiller in a trackside interview. He’s the spokesman for SMART-TD, the transportation division of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers. 

Union Pacific refused multiple requests for an interview and would not reveal how many locomotives are idled in Salt Lake City. Using an aerial drone survey of the trains, it’s estimated there were at least 150 engines parked just east of I-15. They’re lined up on several parallel tracks stretching from around 900 North to 1800 North.

Seegmiller and a Union Pacific engineer who requested anonymity said they believe the actual number of engines is about 200. 

Union Pacific confirmed that each locomotive costs about $3 million, suggesting that hundreds of millions of dollars worth of hardware is sitting unused, just in Salt Lake City.

The company’s financial reports show that, nationally, the company sidelined 3,100 locomotives by the end of 2019. That’s about 40% of the company’s engines. It’s a normal part of the railroad’s operation to keep some locomotives “in storage”; the stored engines are waiting and ready to respond to fluctuations in the rail business.

But lately there are many more idle engines than usual because of a new strategy to collect freight cars more efficiently and group them into longer trains using fewer locomotives.

It’s part of an industrywide effort to raise the profitability of railroads through an approach known as “precision scheduled railroading.”      

The strategy “keeps inventory and supply chains moving,” South wrote, because it “shifts the focus from moving trains to moving cars. This allows us to reduce the number of times a car is touched to best serve our customers and get their goods to market as quickly as possible.”

Another result, Seegmiller said, is that trains are getting far too long. 

“Two, three, four miles (long), depending on the equipment,” he said.

Writing for the company in an email to the Deseret News, South said Union Pacific’s average train length increased only 16% “as a result of efficiency gains made through Unified Plan 2020.” However, she didn’t dispute Seegmiller’s claim that some trains stretch up to four miles in length.

The labor union says longer trains sometimes block multiple highway crossings for extended periods, occasionally cutting off emergency runs by police, fire and ambulances speeding to help a citizen in jeopardy.

“Oh, it definitely impacts the public,” Seegmiller said. “They quite often have to reroute many miles to get to that person, which could mean life or death.”

The company argues that railroads actually improve the flow of highway traffic because a long train can carry as much freight as 400 trucks that would otherwise be traveling on roadways.

“The alternative to waiting a few more minutes at railroad crossings would be gridlock on roads and highways,” South said. “It’s also important to remember rail is the most environmentally responsible way to move freight. On average, trains are up to four times more fuel efficient than trucks.

“That means moving freight by rail instead of truck reduces greenhouse gas emissions by up to 75%.”

A major concern of the labor union is that fewer engines in service means fewer jobs for conductors and engineers. According to official reports, at the end of 2019, Union Pacific had 5,000 workers “either furloughed or in alternate work status,” but Union Pacific won’t say how many of those are in Utah.

Seegmiller said the reduced workforce has raised stress and workloads for employees and excessive demands on equipment that he fears have made the railroads more prone to derailments and other accidents.

“They’ve furloughed about a third of our (Utah) workforce,” Seegmiller said. “And they’re expecting those that are working to work all that much more to fill that void. Morale is terribly low and the conditions, I think, are terribly unsafe at this point.”

In a prepared statement to the Deseret News, Union Pacific said, “Nothing is more important than safety. Our employees start every shift with a safety briefing, and we encourage them to ‘stop the line’ if they see something they’re concerned about.” 

But Union Pacific accidents have steadily increased in recent years. Data from the Federal Railroad Administration shows that Union Pacific accidents, not counting those at highway crossings, climbed from 482 in 2016, to 517 in 2017, 574 in 2018, and 605 in 2019 — an increase of 25% since 2016.  

Seegmiller believes the railroads are moving toward the day when a conductor-engineer might say, “All aboard!” and he’s the only one who gets on.

“The railroads want to go to one-man crews,” he said, deepening the plunge in morale. “It’s probably at an all-time low,” he said. “There’s a reason why Money Inc. rated Union Pacific as the worst place to work in the country.” 

South acknowledges that employee furloughs and operational changes have damaged morale, and the company expected that. “We know we have work to do,” she said, “and we are doing exactly that by listening to our employees’ feedback and finding solutions.”

Union Pacific points out that efficient rail transport is critical, especially now, in the time of a pandemic.

“During this national emergency,” South said, “we are delivering the materials that power hospitals, stock grocery stores, purify water, make medicine and feed livestock.”

All those iron horses are waiting in their pasture for the day when they’re called back to work.