NRC Chairman's Column: COVID-19 Tests Railway Contractors and Suppliers and They Deserve a Passing Grade

June 8, 2020
Railway contractors have shown immense fortitude and resiliency and demonstrated how to get the job done in the face of adversity.

After four decades in the railway construction and maintenance industry, I thought I had seen it all. COVID-19 changed that. My heart goes out to all who have been personally impacted.

During these unprecedented times, the ingenuity of railway contractors has come to the forefront. They have performed remarkable work, all while addressing the challenges of operating in the “new norm.” Contractors continue to play a key role in our nations’ rail infrastructure.

That should be no surprise. Railway contractors are inherently problem solvers, often tackling floods, washouts, derailments, complex cutovers, short work windows and weekend in-services. They have shown immense fortitude and resiliency and demonstrated how to get the job done in the face of adversity.

But COVID-19 has presented some unique challenges.

Our first hurdle was getting authorization to continue working. The NRC coordinated with regulators to ensure that railway contractors were deemed “critical infrastructure workers.” We secured the benefit of continuing to work and–like other essential workers–have also had the onerous task of operating amidst an array of changing variables. 

The NRC has been there for member companies to serve as a COVID-19 resource and to lobby on their behalf.

A recent survey of our membership revealed most have continued to operate but have adopted procedures and practices to safeguard employees and to help curb the spread of the virus. While practices vary depending on locations, our members have put the following procedures into action with many continuing even as the country reopens for business:

Follow CDC guidelines and state and local declarations -, including those specifying social distancing, frequent hand washing and sanitizing. Member companies are monitoring and educating employees to ensure they follow recommended practices.

Prohibit or limit travel and adjust practices for project sites - Member companies discontinued non-essential travel, particularly via public transportation, as well as in-person conferences and project site visits. Only those critical to the work are allowed on project sites. Many companies reduced occupancy in vehicles and provided employees with their own hotel room to avoid exposure. Field employees have contended with limited access to public restrooms, restaurant takeout and other food options while away on essential jobs.

Implement workplace alternatives - Whenever possible, employees have worked from home. When that’s not feasible, employees who work at facilities and some job sites had their temperatures taken upon arrival. Member companies adjusted workstations to accommodate social distancing and supplied employees with masks, gloves, wipes and hand sanitizer daily. In manufacturing facilities, some suppliers implemented split shifts or four-day work weeks to assist workers with school-age children at home and to accommodate spreading out employees in work areas. When possible, facilities have opened access and overhead doors to help circulate fresh air and implemented touch-free material pickups and deliveries.

Enhance cleaning protocols and PPE – Member companies with office, shop, warehouse, yards or manufacturing settings frequently sanitize work areas – such as phones, keyboards, door handles, desktops, copy machines, equipment, coffee machines, break areas, and restrooms. Some companies installed plexiglass screens in front offices. At project sites, member companies have set up sanitation regimens with tracking logs to ensure equipment and tools are disinfected and hand washing is completed multiple times daily.

Modify work plans in response to customer reductions, delays or cancellations –Member companies have seen variations in workloads and orders from their railway customers, but overall, business levels have remained constant or at a modest reduction. For the most part, work on public transit projects has continued without interruption. Other work for some Class 1 and shortline railroads has progressed faster than anticipated due to the drier conditions compared to last year. On the other hand, we have seen a slowdown in some capital and maintenance work and material orders as work is delayed due to the slowdown in traffic and lost revenues. 

While our member companies have been working, the NRC has been hard at work too. Our team has been successful in lobbying for coronavirus relief in the form of grants to public transit agencies, Amtrak and for infrastructure investment.

My commentary is genuine. I am extremely proud to be part of the NRC. The work executed by our member companies deserves to be recognized and applauded. The continuance of the above-described implemented practices is still needed as we do not know the duration of COVID-19’s impact. Due to our member companies’ vigilance throughout this time, I believe we will prevail as a stronger and more unified industry.

“Building a Safer and Stronger Railway Construction Industry Together!”