Nebraska continues its close ties to railroad industry

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Nebraska's name is derived from an Otoe word meaning "flat water, but perhaps we should look for a word meaning "straight rails."

That's because the life of our state has been intertwined with the fortune of its railroads since the earliest days.

McCook's prosperity can be traced in large part to its role as a division point for the Burlington and Missouri Railroad, and towns were established along the line so that settlers could reach one in a day's travel by horse-drawn wagon.

Railroad employment continues to be a key component of McCook's economy today, but it has ebbed and flowed over the years, notably the loss of dispatchers when those operations were consolidated.

That same consolidation affected the entire railroad industry in the 1980s, with layoffs, combined work forces and slimming down -- several smaller railroads were formed to keep ag products flowing to market when larger railroads dropped branch lines.

As a result, railroads are finding most of their employees in their 40s or older, many of them nearly ready for retirement.

But the business is booming, thanks to shippers shifting from trucks to more efficient rail because of fuel prices, and increased demand for shipments of coal, food and consumer goods.

To meet the demand, according to a story by The Associated Press, the Union Pacific will hire about 6,000 new employees this year, and probably will need at least 5,000 new people a year for the next several years.

By the end of this year, BNSF will have hired more than 14,000 more people in the past four years, and despite retirements, overall employment has increased from about 36,500 in 2003 to a little more than 40,000, according to Steven Forsberg, a BNSF spokesman.

And it's easy to see how the railroads are able to attract employees. Hired with little or no education beyond high school, railroaders can make up to $40,000 the first year, and if they become an engineer, for example, might be making $75,000 within five years. Plus, there are union benefits, and workers with 30 years of service can retire at age 60.

Not everyone is cut out for the railroading life, which requires never-ending traveling, night, weekend, holiday and on-call schedules. The stress is tough on marriages, and parents often miss school activities and athletic events.

Plus, it's a dangerous occupation. There were 5,635 deaths or injuries among railroad workers on duty in 2005, which was down 6.3 percent from the previous year.

But many are willing to make the sacrifice, and reap financial rewards for that sacrifice.

First it was fur traders, then the wagon trains wending their way across the state. Later it was the railroads, then Interstate 80 positioning the state as an important pipeline for national and international commerce.

Judging from the latest economic developments, railroading will continue to play just as important a part in Nebraska's second century as it did in its first.

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: