Story by Tom Dempsy for kshb.com
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Three weeks after Union Pacific announced plans to transfer operations away from Neff Yard, several employees who were laid off reached out to 41 Action News to voice concerns about safety with the company’s trains.
At least 200 workers were laid off when Union Pacific announced plans in mid-October to transfer nearly all of its train-switching operations from Neff Yard in Kansas City, Missouri, to the Armourdale Railyard in Kansas City, Kansas.
Matt Sweeney, who worked for the company as a carman for 13 years, was among the employees affected by the announcement.
“I know there’s a lot of guys in different situations that don’t know what they’re going to do next,” he said. “It’s a loss of identity not being with my coworkers that I’ve seen for 13 years.”
Sweeney and several other former employees also have raised concerns about Union Pacific train safety in the wake of the company’s “streamlining” of operations.
After working with a team to inspect Union Pacific trains in the past, Sweeney said changes were made in recent years.
“What would have been two guys inspecting both sides of a train and doing a thorough job, taking however much time it takes, now they’ve got one guy doing it and he’s doing one side of it,” he said. “The trains are definitely not receiving the inspections they need to receive.”
Other former employees raised similar concerns in phone calls with 41 Action News last month, with some describing a railroad industry forcing workers to do more with less.
According to Sweeney, the cutbacks and layoffs have resulted in inspectors working under tighter deadlines as well.
“There’s just fewer people inspecting (the trains),” he said. “They’re doing it in less time, so the inspection is a less thorough job. The repairs are not being done like they were before.”
With some of the trains carrying oil or chemicals, Sweeney said that the lack of inspections could result in serious consequences.
“If a hazmat train were to derail, you could have major issues,” he said. “There’s definitely a safety factor to the general public that people need to be aware of.”
Union Pacific released the following statement to 41 Action News in response to those concerns:
“Neff Yard’s closure was a result of our efforts to streamline operations. Union Pacific values safety above all else, and our employees understand we will not sacrifice the well-being of our team for productivity. Work conducted at Neff Yard was transferred to nearby facilities that handle rail cars with the same necessary safety protocols and inspections.”
The decision to gut operations at Neff Yard comes as the railroad industry navigates significant change as more technology and point-to-point routes are used.
“Some of that really revolves around efficiencies and making sure they can be the most efficient that they can possibly be,” Johnson County Community College Program Director John Littleton, who once organized training programs for railroads, said. “We want to make sure we get product from point A to point B the cheapest way possible and the fastest way possible. You want to stage things where they’re most needed.”
Union Pacific said it will maintain a significantly scaled-back presence at Neff Yard.
Moving forward, Sweeney said it was crucial for the safety concerns to be addressed.
“It’s important that the public becomes aware of what is happening,” he said. “The danger to the public is a very big concern.”