Railroads Are Slashing Workers, Cheered On By Wall Street To Stay Profitable Amid Trump’s Trade War

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ROANOKE — Jeff Hollandsworth was told to do something recently that he had never done before in his many years working for Norfolk Southern Railway: Empty lockers.

Norfolk Southern has let more than 3,500 employees go in the past year, including 175 in Roanoke, part of an aggressive push across the railroad industry to slash costs.

As Hollandsworth cut the locks and removed his former co-workers’ coats, hats, power tools and hefty company rule books, he couldn’t shake the feeling that the layoffs were different this time. Unlike in the past, his colleagues probably won’t be coming back.

“When you go to work now, it’s like going into a funeral home,” Hollandsworth said. “What three people used to do, one person is doing now.”

While the U.S. economy overall is growing moderately, the railroad industry is a cautionary sign of the ongoing pain in the industrial sector and the deep structural changes underway in the economy that are eliminating middle-class jobs.

President Trump’s trade war has hit agriculture and manufacturing hard, causing lower demand for companies that move freight. But railroad stocks soared in 2019 after rail executives embraced automation and cost-cutting to remain profitable, doubling down on the idea that rail’s future entails longer, faster trains and fewer workers.

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