Railroad companies seeking improvements, 15,000 new hires
Don Despines turned to railroading a decade ago after earning a college accounting degree and working several sales jobs.
"I didn't feel comfortable raising a child on commission," said Despines, 34, who lives in Economy, five miles from one of the region's largest railyards in Conway. He said steady pay and attractive retirement benefits lured him to the career.
The nation's seven major railroads hope such selling points will help them hire a combined 15,000 people this year, almost a quarter of them military veterans and many from other professions, according to the Washington-based Association of American Railroads that represents the major freight haulers and Amtrak. Smaller, short-line and regional railroads intend to hire thousands more.
"If they add any jobs in Conway, it would be a blessing. If they add 500, I might tap dance on Route 65," said Donna Fath, a bartender at a VFW that sits across the highway from Norfolk Southern's sprawling Conway Terminal in Beaver County, once the nation's largest rail yard. It employs about 1,400.
Norfolk Southern intends to hire 2,800 people this year. It did not say how many would be based at Conway. On average, 60 to 80 trains a day pass through the giant yard that stretches four miles along the upper side of the Ohio River. It is also unknown how many people will be hired locally at CSX, but the state's No. 2 hauler hired 4,000 people last year and plans to hire more than 3,000 this year.
Railroads plan to spend a record $13 billion of their money on system improvements, the railroad association said. A PennDOT report released in December 2010 said Pennsylvania's railroads planned at least $376.6 million of work in the following three years.
"We can't say (railroads) are poised to regain their previously dominant position, but their long period of decline appears to be over and they are holding their own," said Noel Perry, managing director and senior consultant at Freight Transportation Research Associates in Nashville, Ind.
Railroad employment is on pace to rise for the second year in a row. It averaged about 232,000 through this year's first three months and 229,000 employees for all of 2011, up from 216,525 in 2010, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data.
It would be just the 12th time since 1947 that average annual railroad employment increased, and just the fourth time that railroads posted two or more years in a row of increased employment. Railroads endured a 22-year skid between 1952 and 1973 in which employment dropped every year, and an 18-year slide between 1980 and 1997.
Perry said rail freight haulers have improved service and profit margins over the past decade, allowing them to put more money toward infrastructure improvements and training of new employees. "As the economy grows, most railroads will be able to grow along with it," he said.
The booming Marcellus shale natural gas industry has created an emerging rail market in Pennsylvania, which has more railroads -- 55 -- than any other state, said Joe Gerdes, executive of the Harrisburg-based Keystone State Association of Railroads.
"It's been a godsend here, particularly to short-line railroads," Gerdes said.
Gerdes said Wellsboro & Corning Railroad -- which operates a 35-mile line between Tioga County in northcentral Pennsylvania and Steuben County in New York -- hauled about 300 carloads of scrap metal a year before the Marcellus industry arrived. Now it's moving thousands of carloads of sand and water from drilling sites, Gerdes said.
Wellsboro & Corning received a $700,000 state grant this year for line improvements. It was among $23.2 million in state grants doled out for rail projects, including $7.4 million in Western Pennsylvania. It was the lowest total since the state awarded $14.3 million in grants in 2007, PennDOT said. Major railroads aren't eligible for federal funding for capital projects, Association of American Railroads spokeswoman Holly Arthur said.
Overall, the railroad association said, major railroads hauled 8.1 million carloads of freight in the first 16 weeks of this year, down 0.7 percent from the same period a year ago and almost 7 percent below the same period in 2007 -- before the recession began.
A mild winter and low natural gas prices dampened demand for coal, which fills more than two of every five rail freight cars. Grain shipments also tumbled. Increased shipments of petroleum products, automobiles, metal, lumber, and truck trailers and shipping containers -- also known as intermodal traffic -- helped offset the losses.
Shipping by barge increased 6.9 percent during the first three months of this year compared with the same period a year ago. Shipping by truck increased by 2.7 percent in March compared with March 2011.
Of the new hires at major railroads, about 3,000 are planned because of growth, while the remaining 12,000 are because of attrition, including a wave of retirements that is expected to continue and to open up tens of thousands of jobs in years to come, Arthur said. Train operations and maintenance jobs offer the most opportunities, she said.
Bill Thompson of Imperial, a 37-year railroad worker, is retiring this week. A locomotive engineer turned full-time union rep, Thompson estimated that more than 60 percent of engineers -- including some with decades on the job -- "have no idea when they're coming or going" because they work on-call.
"You've got to be ready to work at a moment's notice seven days a week. If you want all your weekends off or evenings or days off, then railroading is not for you," he said. "This job has been very good for my family, but it's a tough lifestyle."
Despines, the salesman who switched to a railroad career, started at Norfolk Southern as a conductor trainee and became a locomotive engineer in about two years. He mostly runs trains between Conway and Toledo, Ohio.
"You're away from home a lot and you're always on call. The security of the job and the pension we have is what keeps me there," Despines said. The Association of American Railroads says average wages and benefits total $107,000 at major railroads.
If you're a military veteran, the railroads want you.
Railroads have long hired large numbers of military veterans. Arthur said their "dedication, leadership and strategic thinking" abilities make them well-suited for the job. Veterans make up about 20 percent of the work force at CSX and 14 percent of it at Norfolk Southern, spokespeople said.
One sat in the bar at the Conway VFW late Thursday afternoon: Eddie Keller, 80, a Korean War veteran who worked at the Conway yard for 43 years. He built a home just up the hill from the rail yard, well within earshot of the clanging, ringing, rumbling and whistling.
"People have asked if the noise ever bothers me. It never has. It's the sound of people working," Keller said, adding he'd gladly put up with more racket if it meant more jobs for the area.