OMAHA, Neb. — Rail unions want railroads to take some of the billions they’re using every year to buy back their stock and spend it to improve safety in the wake of several high-profile derailments and hire more workers.
The 12 unions that represent all of the more than 100,000 workers across the industry said Friday that collectively the six biggest freight railroads spent over $165 billion on buybacks — well above the $119 billion they spent on upgrading and maintaining their track and equipment between 2015 and last year. At the same time, their safety record worsened as they cut costs and eliminated nearly one-third of all rail jobs.
“I think it has become increasingly apparent that the priorities of the railroads are out of whack,” said Greg Regan, president of the Transportation Trades Division coalition that includes all the rail unions.
The fiery Feb. 3 derailment of a Norfolk Southern train that led to evacuations and health fears near the Ohio-Pennsylvania border, combined with a string of other derailments since then, triggered rising concerns about railroad safety and an host of reform proposals from Congress and regulators.
Unions say the recent derailments and the problems railroads have had keeping up with shipping demand highlight their concerns about how overwhelmed workers have become after extensive job cuts. They say inspections are being rushed with workers getting maybe a minute to check out each rail car and preventative maintenance may be neglected.
Railroads defend their safety record and insist that cost cuts haven’t made their operations riskier.
Safety data from the Federal Railroad Administration does show that the rate of accidents per every million miles freight trains travel increased to 16.695 from 15.572 over the past decade even though the total number of incidents declined as the railroads hauled less freight on fewer, longer trains. The rate of accidents inside railyards also worsened from 11.044 in 2013 to 15.517 last year.
Regulators say the accident rate hasn’t worsened enough to show the new operating model the industry adopted over the past six years is unsafe. And the Association of American Railroads trade group has said railroads have a strong safety record overall, and they remain the safest option to transport hazardous chemicals across land routes. The railroads also say the large amount they spend on capital investments — which averages to more than 18% of their revenue — reflects their commitment to maintaining safe networks.
“Any suggestion that railroads fail to invest appropriately, and that this in turn is related to a negative safety record, is categorically false,” AAR spokesman Ted Greener said.
Union Pacific CEO Lance Fritz defended his railroad’s spending.
“The first dollar we generate and spend goes to either the employees or our railroad,” Fritz said. “We have a great track record in terms of investment in the railroad and it’s actually in some of the best condition I’ve ever seen it and it’s ever been in. So I think we’ve got the amount of capital being deployed to safety and the spending on safety right.”
Business experts say there’s nothing inherently wrong with stock buybacks even though they have become a popular political target of Democrats who say the repurchases tend to widen inequality between wealthy investors, railroad executives and workers. The government imposed a 1% tax on buybacks at the start of the year and President Joe Biden has talked about quadrupling that.
Buybacks reward shareholders by reducing the number of shares and making the remaining ones more valuable. Many investors prefer them over dividends because of the tax advantages. Dividends are treated as ordinary income and taxed at up to 37%. If buybacks boost a stock’s value, investors who hold the shares long enough pay a lower capital-gains tax on the profit when they sell — no more than 20%.
And investors expect to be compensated for putting their money into a company, said Charles Elson, who founded a corporate governance center at the University of Delaware.
“You have to return capital to your investors or no one invests — particularly a capital intensive business like a railroad,” Elson said.
Buybacks aren’t without drawbacks. They do make stock options more valuable, enriching executives, and Elson said companies could wind up wasting money if they overpay for their stock.
But railroads aren’t likely to abandon buybacks. Billionaire investor Warren Buffett, whose Berkshire Hathaway conglomerate owns BNSF railroad, has said stock repurchases benefit all investors equally as long as companies buy the shares when they aren’t overpriced.
“When you are told that all repurchases are harmful to shareholders or to the country, or particularly beneficial to CEOs, you are listening to either an economic illiterate or a silver-tongued demagogue (characters that are not mutually exclusive),” Buffett wrote in his shareholder letter.
The railroad anti-buyback campaign follows similar efforts by airline unions last year. The rail unions say even if railroads do continue to buy back shares, they should do it at a much lower level and invest more in safety and their employees.
Leo McCann, president of the American Train Dispatchers Association, said the railroads are putting investors first while cutting corners on things like training and refusing to listen to worker concerns about safety.
“There’s little or no investment in the workers. It’s all about how much money you can make for Wall Street,” McCann said.
The railroads’ spending decisions have also contributed to low morale among workers after last year’s bruising contract fight that nearly ended in a strike after the railroads refused to consider adding paid sick time. Since the start of the year, railroads have eased that stance and agreed to provide sick time to a number of their unions but workers still generally don’t feel very appreciated.
Dean Devita, president of the National Conference of Firemen & Oilers union, said it’s troubling that the railroads seem to make all their business decisions based on financial — not safety — concerns.
“You want to make money, that’s fine,” Devita said. “We want the railroads to be profitable. We want them to make money. But when you get to that point where now it’s greed — and that’s what Wall Street could do with these hedge funds — that kills. Greed will kill you.”