US Class I rail headcount tumbles 14% in 2020

A photograph of a Union Pacific train.

The U.S. operations of the Class I railroads employed the fewest number of employees in 2020 since at least 2012.

Headcount at U.S. Class I rail operations totaled 120,492 employees last year, a 14% decrease compared with 140,185 employees in 2019, according to data that companies provided to the Surface Transportation Board (STB). This annual average was the lowest since at least 2012, the earliest year that FreightWaves has data available. 

Within that total, headcount for train and engine (T&E) employees was 47,511 in 2020, a 19.3% drop from 58,840 in 2019. The T&E category tends to be more sensitive to market conditions, with T&E headcount falling by nearly one-fifth between 2019 and 2020 amid market response to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

For instance, in December, Norfolk Southern (NYSE: NSC) said it was furloughing mechanical department employees at several locations in response to market conditions. BNSF (NYSE: BRK), Union Pacific (NYSE: UNP) and rail equipment and technology provider Wabtec (NYSE: WAB) took similar actions in 2020. 

The implementation of precision scheduled railroading — an operating model that seeks to streamline operations — also contributed to reduced headcount.

T&E headcount in 2020 was also the lowest since at least 2012.

On a month-to-month basis, December headcount actually rose 2.4% over November to 117,770 employees, although it was down 10.4% year-over-year. 

December’s T&E headcount totaled 49,069 employees, the highest number since March. That total was 5.7% higher than November’s but nearly 9.4% lower than December 2019’s.

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Related articles:

Class I rail headcount plunges to new low in November

Norfolk Southern furloughing mechanical department employees

BNSF lays off employees in Topeka

Wabtec to reduce headcount as rail industry copes with lower volumes

Union Pacific confirms layoffs