A coalition of railroad workers unions says the biggest rail companies in the U.S. have become far too focused on profits, and is calling for public ownership of rail infrastructure across North America.

By Jared Brey, Governing.com

Last month, Railroad Workers United (RWU), an umbrella advocacy group for rail-industry union workers, did something it’s talked about doing for 10 years: It called for the sprawling network of rail infrastructure in North America to be publicly owned.

train freight

The reasons why, according to a resolution adopted by RWU’s international steering committee, include the railroad companies’ hostility to workers’ unions, steady reductions of workforce over the years, disinvestment in railway infrastructure and an obsessive focus on profits over service.

The resolution was approved at a time of unusual public attention on the U.S. supply chain and its reliance on freight rail service, and on the negotiations between railroad workers and the handful of freight companies that currently own most of the tracks in the country. Earlier this fall, the Biden administration helped broker a tentative agreement between unions and management, averting a much-feared rail strike. But two months later, the threat of a strike still looms, with lingering conflicts over rail companies’ uncommonly meager sick-leave policies.

Rail workers say a host of problems — exhausting conditions for workers, perennial threats to the supply chain and the economy, the diminished state of U.S. passenger rail — stem from freight companies’ growing fixation on cost-cutting. They point out that the public ownership of rail infrastructure in other countries, and of roadway, waterway and air travel infrastructure in the U.S., shows it doesn’t have to be that way.

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