The Perils of Precision Scheduled Railroading: Are Railroads Running Out of Control?

By Chuck Siefke, Staff Writer

Since the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869, the American railroad system has played a critical role in the development of the transportation and commerce in the United States. Today, there are over 600 freight railroads in the United States and over 130,000 miles of trackage.[1] These railroads are responsible for moving 40% of the nation’s cargo.[2] Class 1 railroads are the dominant players in the railroad landscape today. The Surface Transportation Board (“STB”) qualifies a railroad as Class 1 if it earns just 289.4 million dollars in revenue annually.[3] Currently, there are six Class 1 freight railroads.[4] These railroads operate most of the trackage in the United States today.[5]  Throughout this history, railroads have remained for-profit businesses, concerned with moving freight efficiently and effectively. However, recent changes in operating practices pushing efficiency and profits have come under scrutiny by lawmakers and the public alike.

Precision Scheduled Railroading (“PSR”) is a national trend in the North American railroad landscape designed to improve efficiency and profits.[6] First pioneered by E. Hunter Harrison in 1993, it has been adopted by six Class 1 railroads in the United States.[7] PSR focuses on improving a railroad’s operating ratio by running longer trains and thus using less staff.[8] Railroads make their money by the weight and distance of the freight it hauls.[9] By running longer trains with less staff, a railroad reduces costs and increases profits.[10]

This practice by major Class 1 railroads has raised concerns for legislators on multiple fronts. PSR allows Class 1 railroad to reduce staff to maintain a leaner more profitable operating model. Class 1 railroads have reduced their workforces dealing with transportation and maintenance by over 20% between 2011 and 2021.[11] This reduction of jobs was a natural consequence of PSR; there was less of a need for staff due to stricter train schedules and less locomotives and equipment being used.[12] The cuts have led to concerns regarding maintenance and sustainability in the face of economic fluctuations, but these issues currently go unaddressed.[13]

However, the biggest concern that unions, legislators, and the common person have are derailments and other accidents. Although accident data indicates there has not been a significant increase in derailments or other calamities due to PSR, the individual risk profile of each train has greatly increased.[14] Longer trains are more difficult to control while out on the road, which means that they are inherently more risky to operate.[15] According to ProPublica, in a review of over 600 reports by the Federal Railroad Administration, the growing length of trains has been problematic.[16] SMART, the largest railroad union in the United States, called for an FRA investigation into these practices, arguing that the railroads are incurring unreasonable risks by running larger trains.[17] By running longer trains, each freight car incurs more stress on each journey.[18] In addition, the stress on a loaded freight car versus an empty freight is a significant problem.[19]

These longer trains have already begun to show their dangerous potential. In 2017, a CSX derailment in Hyndman, Pennsylvania was in part the result of the front part of the train having too many empty cars.[20] There were 42 cars in front of the trains, mostly empty. The remaining 94 cars behind the train were responsible for 90% of the trains weight.[21] This in part caused the front of the train to incur significant stress and eventually, a car jumped the tracks and caused it to crash into the small town.[22] During the disaster response, the town had to be evacuated over concerns of a tank car potentially exploding.[23] Although it did not, three other freight cars in the derailment did release hazardous material into the area.[24]

Given the growing risk profile of longer trains and the dangerous materials that they can haul, there have been pushes on both state and federal legislatures to try and address the issues concerning train length.[25] More than seven states have proposed maximum train length limits varying from 1.4 to 1.6 miles.[26] However, these limits face strong opposition from the Class 1 railroads themselves.[27] The railroads argue that unions push the restrictions to create more jobs and would violate interstate commerce laws.[28] As it stands currently, there is no major state or Congressional legislation which would address these concerns, but hopefully that will change in the future.




[4] Id.

[5] Id.


[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

[10] Id.



[13] Id.


[15] Id.

[16] Id.

[17] Id.

[18] Id.

[19] Id.

[20] Id.

[21] Id.

[22] Id.

[23] Id

[24] Id.

[25] Id.

[26] Id.

[27] Id.

[28] Id.

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