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Union Pacific parks over a hundred locomotives in Salt Lake rail yard

Union Pacific locomotives parked in Salt Lake rail yard Photo credit - KSLTV 5

SALT LAKE CITY, UT — Right now it’s estimated that Union Pacific has at least 150 railroad engines sitting in a rail yard north of Salt Lake. Approximately 450 million dollars worth of locomotives is essentially going untouched until Union Pacific finds a use for the trains.

Kristen South, Union Pacific Senior Director, told KSL TV those engines are “being stored” due to a company-wide efficiency program that kicked in during 2019.

Yet, critics, and Union Pacific unions, have some concerns about the new program such as is Union Pacific trading safety for profit?

Unified Plan 2020

In September of 2018, Union Pacific announced in a press release the “Unified Plan 2020” that included a new program called “Precision Scheduled Railroading principles.”

The program was rolled out in 2018 with the intention of being completed by 2020.

Union Pacific stated the reason for the changes was to streamline its operation and meet consumer expectations.

“We are not currently meeting customer expectations,” said Lance Fritz, Union Pacific’s chairman, president, and chief executive officer. “Unified Plan 2020 is our path forward to secure our place as the industry leader in safety, service, and financial performance.”

Union Pacific said the purpose of implementing  Precision Scheduled Railroading principles was to “[drive] improved service reliability for customers, increase operating efficiency and reduced network complexity.”

According to the Unified Plan 2020, Union Pacific plans to

  • “Shifting the focus of operations from moving trains to moving cars.
  • Minimizing car dwell, car classification events and locomotive power requirements.
  • Utilizing general-purpose trains by blending existing train services.
  • Balancing train movements to improve the utilization of crews and rail assets.”

by the fall of 2020.

However, labor unions representing Union Pacific conductor and engineers worry about idling of locomotives is hurting jobs and safety measures.

The perceived impact of the Unified Plan 2020

Jay Seegmiller, the spokesman for SMART-TD, the transportation division of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, and Transportation Workers, is among those speaking out against the changes at Union Pacific.

“They [Union Pacific] are basically doubling the size of trains so they don’t need as many locomotives,” Seegmiller told KSLTV.

By 2019, the Unified Plan parked 3,100 locomotives (roughly 40% of engines) nationally. The lengths of trains are longer to compensate for fewer locomotives, meeting Union Pacific’s goal of “shifting the focus of operations from moving trains to moving cars.”

According to Seegmiller, trains can be two, three, or even 4 miles long. The change is “basically doubling the size of the trains,” said Seegmiller.

Union Pacific said they’ve increased their trains by only 16%, but admitted that some are much longer.

The decrease of trains on the tracks has led to employees on shaky grounds. According to official reports, 5,000 workers Union Pacific workers were “either furloughed or in alternate work status” at the end of 2019.

Seegmiller mentioned about 1/3 of the workforce was furloughed, leaving the remaining workforce to fill in the gaps.

A question of safety

Union Pacific labor unions believe the length of train cars cause blockages that can cut off routes for safety responders, such as police, ambulances & fire. This means the fastest road to respond to an emergency can be blocked for an extended period of time.

Additionally, Seegmiller said a limited workforce and the excessive demands on equipment have made the railroads more prone to derailments and other accidents.

In a statement to KSL and the Deseret News, Union Pacific said “nothing is more important than safety. Our employees start every shift with a safety briefing, and we encourage them to ‘stop the line’ if they see something they’re concerned about.”

But, data obtained from the Federal Railroad Administration showed Union Pacific accidents have climbed 25% since 2016, not including mishaps on highway crossings.

“During this national emergency, we are delivering the materials that power hospitals, stock grocery stores, purify water, make medicine, and feed livestock,” Union Pacific continued.

Unified Plan 2020 was in motion before the coronavirus pandemic.  And now the public, Union Pacific workers, and Union Pacific itself are left to evaluate safety vs. new procedures.

Meanwhile, Union Pacific said they have the locomotives on standby waiting to go into service if needed.

KSL and Deseret News reached out to Union Pacific repeatedly for an interview. Union Pacific declined, and instead, answered some questions through e-mail.