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Some upbeat railroad news, or so we hope

There only can be speculation about whether Precision Scheduled Railroading, while positive financially for railroad companies but already disastrous for many rank-and-file workers, both here and elsewhere, has concluded its “remaking” of the industry.

While Altoona’s Juniata Locomotive Shop received upbeat news last week that Norfolk Southern will transfer 85 jobs here as part of its decision to close its heavy-repair locomotive shop in Roanoke, Va., how much that move might affect in a positive way local workers who Norfolk Southern has furloughed under its PSR process remains a matter of conjecture.

The railroad furloughed 245 workers here last year. Meanwhile, Norfolk is offering the 85 Roanoke workers in question the opportunity to transfer here.

Also, as a Juniata employee observed,

theoretically, at least, workers from the Virginia city could displace Juniata workers of lesser seniority, resulting in no additional workers being added here.

There also is an important question lurking in the proverbial shadows: Will Virginia politicians try to apply pressure in any way to try to convince the railroad to abandon its plan affecting that state? It is imperative that local lawmakers, as well as others the whole way up to the governor’s office and, beyond that, the Keystone State’s congressional delegation, pay attention to the railroad’s movements, going forward, in regard to PSR.

PSR’s aims are minimizing idle time, handling and distances traveled by railcars while maximizing the size and speed of trains. It also is putting pressure on shippers in regard to the movement of their needed supplies and finished products.

As for local people Norfolk has furloughed — workers who might be eligible to return — there is the following big decision awaiting them:

Will they be willing to jump back into the uncertainty spawned by PSR by abandoning replacement — perhaps more stable — jobs they have acquired since being let go by the railroad?

The fact is that there is no guarantee that Norfolk has no other local cutback plans for the Juniata facility.

In its news release announcing the Roanoke action, the railroad said “this difficult but necessary decision reflects the importance of ensuring the company maintains the right mix of people and facilities in the right locations.”

The unfortunate observation that can be derived from that statement is that someday it could be re-written to apply to Blair County and the other area counties that the Juniata plant positively impacts.

Since the beginning of this year, there have been troubling developments in the railroad industry that no doubt triggered concerns locally about this railroad center’s future.

On Jan. 17, the Associated Press reported that CSX experienced a profit decline of 9 percent in last year’s fourth quarter as that railroad hauled 7 percent less freight. On Jan. 24, there were news reports about Union Pacific planning to run its railroad with nearly 3,000 fewer workers this year, apparently due to PSR.

Those reports were followed by a Jan. 30 report that Norfolk Southern’s fourth-quarter profit declined 5 percent as a result of the railroad having hauled 9 percent less freight.

Tucked among those railroad-specific reports was a Jan. 25-26 Wall Street Journal report that transport stocks were signaling a potentially ominous sign for investors betting on a pickup in global growth.

For now, it is clear that real optimism regarding the railroad industry here and beyond remains a distant commodity.

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