By Chrissy Suttles
Beaver County Times
Sep 4, 2019 – CONWAY — Norfolk Southern Railway did not give local leaders prior notice before cutting more than 50 employees at the Conway Yards switching station Tuesday.
“I read it in the newspaper this morning,” Beaver County Commissioner Tony Amadio said, echoing statements by state Sen. Elder Vogel Jr., R-47, New Sewickley Township, and others throughout the county.
When management told roughly 55 mechanical workers they would be laid off, many were caught off guard.
“It was mostly mechanics and electricians who were let go,” said one person who still works at Conway Yards and spoke on the condition of anonymity. “Someone from corporate came in to reassure everyone afterward, but he sidestepped our questions. We’re frustrated with how it’s been handled.”
Those who lost their jobs will retain a number of company benefits for the next several months, but it’s unlikely anyone will return to work.
Norfolk Southern announced an additional 100 layoffs at the Juniata Locomotive Shop in Altoona, but some of those electricians may relocate to Beaver County to work at Shell Chemicals’ ethane cracker plant, the Altoona Mirror reported.
The Conway Yards, which snakes along the Ohio River in Freedom and Conway, is one of the largest rail yards in the country. Norfolk Southern Vice President of Communications Tom Werner said the eliminated positions were no longer vital to railway operations as the company moves to precision-scheduled railroading – or parking locomotives, cutting travel time and reducing jobs to better match peer performance.
Earlier this year, railroad representatives revealed plans to eliminate 3,000 positions companywide by 2022 to hit financial goals. While a declining coal industry is partly to blame, the Virginia-based rail carrier has gradually increased its transport of chemicals, steel and lumber in recent years.
“On-time performance and train speed is hitting records highs, and terminal dwell is becoming lower than any time in memory,” Werner said. “That’s all good for serving the customers. The downside for our employees in mechanical is that fewer locomotives means fewer locomotives to be maintained.”
The strategy has been criticized by affiliated unions, including the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, for putting profits ahead of people. Norfolk Southern reported $722 million in second-quarter earnings this year, compared to $710 million in 2018. During that same time, the company’s workforce was reduced by about 1,500 people, according to financial reports.
It’s unclear if more layoffs are coming to Beaver County, but Vogel, whose senatorial district includes Conway, said the Governor’s Action Team may get involved to help those looking for work.
“Mechanics are in great demand here,” he said. “The railroad has a huge impact, and it’s not a good day when people lose their jobs.”
Amadio said there’s substantial economic value in jobs like the ones lost Tuesday.
“We try to do our best to create jobs in Beaver County, and whenever we lose jobs, it hurts,” he said. “These are good, family-sustaining jobs that are very important to our community and our county.”