The Misery Index: A look behind the numbers

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Just the other week I reported on another noticeable step-up in rail traffic--yet another sign that we’re ever-so-slowly climbing out of this year’s painful slump (see “What Happened to the Railroad Recovery?” Nov. 20). But that recovery, slender as it is, has not been uniform. I was reminded of that today while looking at a matrix of furloughs of BNSF Railway train-service employees.
 
The number of laid-off employees began 2009 at a very modest 105, and peaked in the first half of June at almost 3,100. Then layoffs slid to the 1,800 level in August, due to a surge in agricultural traffic, before climbing in October back to about 2,700. There it has stubbornly remained.
 
When you look at trends by area, or even city by city, the numbers really get interesting. Take the coal corridor, between Gillette, Wyo., and Lincoln, Neb. Alliance, Neb., is in the middle of that corridor, and averaged about 80 furloughs until autumn. Now the number is 50 percent higher. Lincoln, Neb., and Gillette and Sheridan, Wyo., have all seen similar jumps, sometimes starting earlier than in Alliance. All this reflects weakened demand for Powder River Basin coal, caused mostly by the recession and last summer’s mild weather.
 
The numbers, and the trends, are not nearly so sobering along the Chicago-Los Angeles corridor, which is dominated by intermodal trains
(see photo, taken near Hereford, Texas). For example, the furlough board in Barstow, Calif., has “only” 28 names, or half the number of late September. Winslow, Ariz.; Belen and Clovis, N.M.; Amarillo, Texas; and Wellington, Kan.--all crew-change points on the Transcon--have all seen their modest numbers of layoffs either hold rock-steady in recent months or trend downward.
 
What surprises me is the stubbornly high furlough counts on BNSF’s Springfield Division, which is centered on its namesake city in Missouri and includes most of the former Frisco Railroad. When you consider that Clovis and Belen between them, on the Transcon, have only 50 train-service people laid off, the numbers at places like Springfield (71 furloughs); Thayer, Mo. (32); Chaffee, Mo. (30); and Birmingham, Ala. (32); are frightfully high.
 
The last impression I leave with you is this: Whether the number of furloughed employee at one place or another is one (Gainesville, Texas) or 100 (Lincoln), each digit represents a man or woman whose professional life is on hold. So 2,692 digits on just this one railroad represents a lot of suffering. Wouldn’t it be nice to see the numbers come decisively down? — Fred W. Frailey (ffrailey@gmail.com)
 

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