Thousands no longer working on the railroad after coal industry crash

Published: Jun. 1, 2016 at 10:21 PM CDT
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David Wilkerson worked on the railroad for almost 30 years. He said there were a lot of good times during his career with the Frisco, later Burlington Northern, and eventually BNSF.

" It was good and kind of exciting at times. Kind of like a free life," David laughed. "It is the scenery and travel...Of course, paydays weren't too bad. That was one thing that kept you hanging on."

And, there were some not so great times.

"I was laid off probably (I was lucky) four or five times," he said.

Furloughs and layoffs on the rail line come and go with the ups and downs of the economy. But times are tougher now than they've been in a long time. Railroad industry analysts say the downturn in business is partly because of a slowing economy. It's also largely because of what some call the War on Coal.

In hopes of encouraging renewable energy such as solar and wind, last year the Obama Administration enacted environmental polices cracking down on coal use. Natural gas is cleaner and cheaper, so many plants have switched to that fuel. That's what Springfield City Utilities did at its James River power plant months ago (CU continues to burn coal at its John Twitty Energy Center, the utility's main power generation source).

As a result of declining demand, coal train traffic is down between 30% to 40%.

"You don't see near as many coal trains coming through," said Wilkerson. "It was pretty saturated with coal trains for a while."

Across the nation, at least 15,000 workers among among the nation's largest rail companies are furloughed. BNSF Railway, with a hub in Springfield, has 4,600 employees on the sidelines nationwide. Many of those are based out of the Springfield Division. However, the railroad won't say exactly how many.

This week, the railroad announced it was consolidating its Springfield Division offices with those located in Lincoln, NE.

"[Springfield] Division staff will continue to operate in Springfield and we don't expect that there will be any significant change in employee numbers," stated BNSF Railway spokesperson Andy Williams.

BNSF says capital investments in recent years have improved efficiency. The creation of the new Heartland Division will save money at this time when coal revenues are sharply down.

"This realignment of operations will create a leaner and more agile organization that is better positioned for growth and new business opportunities," Williams said.

Those impacted by the industry changes are waiting to see what comes next.

"It may get a little worse, but everybody is probably keeping their fingers crossed hoping it doesn't," David said.

When the price of natural gas goes back up, it's likely many power plants will revert to burning coal. However, BNSF says it does not anticipate coal volumes ever returning to what they were in the past.