Union Pacific's new CEO promises improved safety and service but big rail unions lukewarm on hire

Union Pacific’s new CEO Jim Vena started Monday by promising to improve safety and service to help the railroad grow, but he cautioned that “the road ahead won’t be an easy one.”

ByJOSH FUNK AP Business Writer

FILE – A Union Pacific train travels through Union, Neb., July 31, 2018. Union Pacific announced Wednesday, July 26, 2023, it has hired its former chief operating officer Jim Vena as the new CEO. The Soroban Capital Partners hedge fund that holds a $1.6 billion stake in Union Pacific had been urging the railroad to hire Vena because of his expertise in streamlining operations. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik, File)

The Associated Press

OMAHA, Neb. — Union Pacific’s new CEO Jim Vena started Monday by promising to improve safety and service to help the railroad grow, but he cautioned that “the road ahead won’t be an easy one.”

Some of the Omaha, Nebraska, railroad’s biggest unions are already lukewarm on Vena’s hiring because he is a strong proponent of the lean operating model UP and the rest of the industry have been using in recent years that led to widespread job cuts. Vena helped oversee Union Pacific’s initial implementation of that “precision scheduled railroading” model when he served as the railroad’s chief operating officer for two years starting in 2019.

Vena suggested more changes are coming at the railroad in a note to all of UP’s staff Monday where he emphasized his experience working his way up through the industry after starting as a brakeman, but he didn’t offer any specifics. He was hired last month after a hedge fund pressured the railroad to oust Lance Fritz because it was disappointed with Union Pacific’s performance during his tenure.

“I know you have many questions about what will happen and how it will impact you,” Vena said in his letter. “I share some of those questions, and I will learn a lot from you as I travel the system. What I can tell you is that we will become the safest railroad in the world. I can tell you we will improve our service product, and we will become more efficient and more reliable – for ourselves, our customers, our communities and our shareholders.”

The five general chairpersons who lead the Transportation Division of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers union that represents conductors on Union Pacific said after Vena’s hiring that they blame him for much of the deterioration in workers’ quality of life because of the changes he made in the name of higher profits.

“He orchestrated huge furloughs and cuts to every department in transportation, which resulted in the crew shortages we have yet to recover from,” the SMART-TD union officials wrote in their letter. “Vena put this railroad on a long-term path of destruction for a short-term return on investment for Wall Street tycoons. Watching Union Pacific place this albatross as CEO for the foreseeable future is heartbreaking for those of us who have worked hard to bring Union Pacific back from the brink.”

The SMART-TD union canceled several of its scheduled negotiating sessions with the railroad over the next couple months because of the concerns about Vena’s leadership and his willingness to address worker concerns.

The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen union also expressed reservations about Vena’s hiring at the time it was announced.

Union Pacific is one of the nation’s largest railroads with a network of 32,400 miles (52,000 kilometers) of track in 23 Western states.

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