Train engineers deal with Union Pacific will improve schedules and address quality-of-life concerns

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — Engineers who operate trains for Union Pacific will soon have much more predictable schedules that will allow them to plan when they are going to be off, a change addressing one of the key quality-of-life concerns that pushed the rail industry to the brink of a strike last fall.

The Omaha, Nebraska-based railroad announced a deal with the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen union Wednesday that will let UP's roughly 5,600 engineers plan on having four days off in a row after spending 11 days straight on call. Within those 11 days, there will likely be some breaks between shifts because federal rules require 24 hours off after engineers work four straight days, but it's hard to predict where that time off will fall.

“The 11-4 work/rest schedule will be life-altering for employees who are used to working on-call 24/7, 365 days a year,” said BLET National President Eddie Hall. “This significant change in scheduling not only will make life better for locomotive engineers and their families, it also should help Union Pacific retain and recruit employees.”

Workers said during the contract talks that demanding schedules, combined with the railroads' strict attendance policies, were making it difficult, if not impossible, to take any time off, with train crews having the most unpredictable schedules. The engineers and conductors that operate the trains routinely get the worst of it because railroads cannot predict exactly when trains, which run around the clock, will be ready to leave.

But since Congress intervened and blocked rail workers from going on strike because they worried about the potential economic consequences, Union Pacific and the other major freight railroads have made strides by reaching a number of agreements to start providing paid sick time to workers. The union that represents conductors announced a deal with Norfolk Southern that's similar to the new BLET deal with UP to make their schedules more predictable. That pact will put conductors on a schedule of working six days in a row followed by two days off.

In another sign of progress, the conductors’ union — the Transportation Division of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers — just announced another agreement Wednesday with CSX that will provide sick time for about 3,000 more conductors. A previous deal with CSX provided sick time to about 2,400 other conductors.

Union Pacific CEO Lance Fritz said this agreement with the BLET will improve “the quality of life for the locomotive engineers who move the goods Americans rely on every day.” But the engineers union still lacks a sick time agreement with Union Pacific. So far, the only railroad the engineers union has secured sick time from is Norfolk Southern.

A pilot project earlier this year in the Kansas City area showed that the schedule changes helped reduce the number of days engineers took off at the last minute and kept some engineers from walking away from the railroad. If that continues once these new schedules are put in place across the railroad over the next year, that will help it count on having more of the workers it needs to drive its trains show up when they are scheduled to work. The railroad said the result should be fewer delays and better morale.

Union Pacific, one of the nation's largest railroads, hauls all kinds of goods across 23 western states.