As rail industry changes, furloughed workers search for a way forward

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ROANOKE, Va (WDBJ7) Fifteen days: That's how long it's been since machinist Jason Dunn was furloughed from his job at Norfolk Southern. Since then, he says it's been a daily search to figure out what comes next when the railroad moves on.

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"For nine years I haven't had to worry about a job," said Dunn. "I haven't had to worry about health care, anything that my kids needed I was able to take care of."

Dunn is far from the only one left behind. Nationally, companies such as Norfolk Southern are making changes, shifting business models and cutting back on workers, even as they chalk up record profits.

"I think there are some particular conditions relative to rail," said John Provo, the Director of the office of economic development at Virginia Tech.

He says the rail industry is going through some real changes. For one, the railroad is shipping far less coal than it used to, and is facing increased pressure from competitors such as trucking companies. Major restructurings are are shaking things up industry-wide.

As a result of those pressures, Norfolk Southern has become the latest railway to turn to something called Precision Scheduled Railroading, or PSR.

With PSR, trains are run more like buses, with set schedules, pickup and drop-off times. Trains will now take loads directly from origin to final destination, eliminating the need to switch cars around at rail yards such as Roanoke.

All this adds up to fewer trains overall, and fewer workers needed to service them. In a presentation to stockholders in February, Norfolk Southern pledged to cut 500 people from its workforce this year alone, and to cut another 2,500 by 2021.

For workers such as Jason Dunn, it's a painful change.

"This isn't about the working class people," he said. "This is about stockholders and, you know, people who make way more money than we can ever dream of."

But according to John Provo, it's not all bad news. "This region is as well situated as anybody," he said.

Provo points out that even as rail cuts workers, the strong manufacturing sector in the Roanoke Valley could absorb those laid off or furloughed by Norfolk Southern. At the same time, the large number of colleges in the Valley can offer retraining opportunities.

But for many workers, the time and money needed to go back to school is a luxury they can't afford. And the idea of starting over, after years spent along the tracks, just isn't an appealing idea for many, including Jason Dunn.

"Not too many jobs in the valley are going to offer me what they did," he said.

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