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Shortage of Railroad Workers Threatens Recovery

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America’s freight railroads are struggling to bring back workers, contributing to a slowdown in the movement of chemicals, fertilizer and other products that threatens to disrupt factory operations and hinder a rebound from the pandemic, according to shippers and trade groups.

The problems have attracted scrutiny from federal regulators, who have been concerned that cost cuts and new operational plans implemented across most freight railroads that have been celebrated on Wall Street have resulted in lackluster service for some customers.

“The railroads cannot strip down to bare-bones operations,” said Martin Oberman, chairman of the Surface Transportation Board. “It’d be like a professional football team only having one quarterback.”

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The board, which oversees freight railroads, is examining ways that it could improve competition in the rail industry, a mission highlighted in the Biden administration’s recent executive order to promote more competitive markets across numerous industries.

The challenges largely stem from two issues buffeting the U.S. economy: labor shortages and widespread supply-chain bottlenecks as manufacturing ramps up and the economy snaps back.

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