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Rail union says Union Pacific layoffs of over 1,000 track maintenance workers jeopardizes safety

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — The head of the union that represents track maintenance workers says Union Pacific is jeopardizing safety by delaying nearly 1,200 planned projects until next year and laying off more than 1,000 workers, but the railroad says the seasonal move shouldn't be alarming.

The president of the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes Division union has been sending letters to regulators for more than a month raising concerns about the layoffs, but the the Surface Transportation Board hasn't intervened.

“Chaos and disruption with Union Pacific’s Maintenance of Way forces can only lead to one outcome — deferred maintenance and catastrophic outcomes,” Tony Cardwell, who leads the union, said in his letters. “These furloughs will affect the safety of Union Pacific operations and pose serious safety risks for the general public and the communities surrounding Union Pacific’s infrastructure.”

Union Pacific said the decision to delay these projects is a reflection of the fact that the railroad went over budget after dealing with several unexpected weather events like the tropical storm that hit California this year and last summer's extreme heat. The railroad said it remains committed to safety and improving its track network across the western U.S.

Railroad safety has been a concern nationwide this year ever since a Norfolk Southern train derailed, spilled hazardous chemicals and caught fire in eastern Ohio in February. Members of Congress proposed reforms but those have largely stalled.

Cardwell said that after these layoffs of 1,350 workers UP will have only a little over 4,700 track maintenance workers. Back in 2015 before a series of cuts designed to make the railroad more efficient, Union Pacific employed 8,791. That means each maintenance worker will now have about 11 miles (17.7 kilometers) of track to take care of on average, up from 8.6 last year and 6.5 in 2016.

The union is concerned that these cuts are an indication of how tightly new CEO Jim Vena plans to manage the railroad's expenses. Union Pacific, like all the major freight railroads, already made significant cuts in its workforce over the past several years as part of overhauling its operations to rely more on fewer, longer trains. Last month, Union Pacific announced plans to trim the ranks of its mangers across the railroad to help streamline decision making.

Union Pacific hasn't done large year-end layoffs of maintenance workers like this in several years, according to the union, although these jobs were originally listed as seasonal positions.

Union Pacific spokeswoman Clarissa Beyah said the actual number of furloughs will be smaller than the union fears because many workers take other jobs with the railroad and some workers may have enough vacation time saved up to cover the period.

“Accusations that Union Pacific does not invest in its infrastructure and maintenance are untrue," Beyah said. "This year alone, the railroad will spend $3.7 billion on capital investment, of which a significant portion is allotted for maintenance. As part of the capital planning process, we are temporarily reducing some seasonal track maintenance positions.”

The railroad said its workers have already replaced more than 3 million railroad ties and more than 400 miles of track across the railroad this year.

And even though these maintenance workers will be out of work during the holiday season, Union Pacific said it continues to hire train crews in certain locations as part of its effort to improve service and make sure it can handle all the shipments companies hire the railroad to deliver. At last report, Union Pacific had more than 33,000 employees in October before these layoffs began.

The union has been told that maintenance workers will be called back to work sometime in January after the railroad finalizes its capital spending budget for next year, but it's not clear exactly when that will happen or how many workers will regain their jobs. Cardwell said anytime there are layoffs some jobs are always lost permanently because not everyone is rehired.