Automation threatens dream of 450,000 unionized California High-Speed Rail jobs

By Kevin Dayton
June 20, 2017

It’s trendy for public intellectuals to warn that technological advancement may soon lead to the “end of work.” While some might scoff at this prophesy, it’s valid for certain occupations. Unions that represent workers in skilled trade occupations have seen the “end of jobs” for decades and certainly take the threat seriously.

A noteworthy example was revealed during the 2002 contract dispute between the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) and Pacific Maritime Association (PMA). In a press release, PMA criticized the ILWU for their resistance to new technology:

…the ILWU said today that the employers need to move away from technology. That’s like asking us to throw away our computer and go back to the electric typewriter.  It’s not going to happen. International trade is serious business. Our ports today, though among the largest in the world, are far behind when it comes to the use of modern technology. In some cases, longshore workers still use chalk to identify and track cargo at a time in this Age of Technology when the local grocery stores and video rental outlets use barcodes and scanners. We have ILWU clerks re-typing information when that information can be processed with the press of a button.

Since then, automation has continued to increase at West Coast ports and frustrate the unions working there. Meanwhile, another industry ripe for technological change is rail transportation. Automation, computers, and robots will soon make numerous occupations in rail transit as obsolete as the chalk and chalkboard tracking systems at West Coast ports. In fact, this technology may undermine one of the chief arguments used by advocates of California High-Speed Rail: job creation.

Some critics of high-speed rail argue that the promise of Maglev or Hyperloop will make track-based passenger rail an anachronism by 2029, the year that the Authority claims as the start of paid passenger service between San Francisco and Los Angeles. But even if that first phase of the bullet train system is finished, advancing technology may undermine the dreams of labor unions for the creation of thousands of unionized government employees to run and maintain it. Unions may eventually need to lobby the legislative and executive branches of California government to preserve their chalk and chalkboards.

Automation of Rail Is Happening in Europe

On June 14, 2017, French newspaper Le Figaro reported that France’s national railway corporation SNCF plans by 2019 to begin testing an automated high-speed freight train with a goal of automated high-speed passenger service by 2023. Supposedly the change will allow more frequent train service, with perhaps a 25% increase in service between Paris and Lyon.

The French rail agency has assured the public (and presumably the unions) that a worker would still be at the train controls to identify and respond to unusual conditions or emergencies when automated service is established. Whether or not that human presence will always be necessary remains to be seen.

Union leaders are right to be worried. Automation may end up eliminating many more jobs than just engineers. Ticket service, surveillance, security, safety inspections, custodial services, and even food service are likely targets for automation.

According to a May 25, 2017 article in Rail Engineer (UK), “the rise of automation technologies in transport is leading to fears over redundancies and union action.” In the United Kingdom, Southern Railway workers have been in a labor dispute spurred in part by concerns about ticket office closures and eliminating workers who manually open and close doors. On March 21, 2017, the head of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) declared in a press release that a new proposed British rail plan was “a blueprint for automation with the long-term objective of a faceless railway where passengers are left to fend for themselves without any human contact whatsoever.”

Are California High-Speed Rail Jobs Doomed to Technological Obsolescence?

Numerous sources claim California High-Speed Rail will create 450,000 permanent jobs by 2035. This number appears to originate from a 2003 report prepared by Cambridge Systematics for the California High-Speed Rail Authority. The number was then included in the Economic Growth and Related Impacts analysis of the California High-Speed Train Final Program Environmental Impact Report/Environmental Impact Statement developed in the mid-2000s. Voters read about the “450,000 permanent jobs” allegedly to be created through California High-Speed Rail in the conclusion of the “Argument in Favor of Proposition 1A” in the Supplemental Official Voter Information Guide for the November 4, 2008, General Election. And the number was cited in the 2008 California High-Speed Rail Authority Business Plan and in applications for federal grants through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

Unions highlighted this potential for job creation as they lobbied the California legislature for budget appropriations and the sale of Proposition 1A bonds to fund construction. A 2012 issue brief distributed by the California Labor Federation, AFL-CIO declared that “Building high speed rail will grow our economy and create long term jobs. An estimated 450,000 jobs in operations, maintenance, ticketing, and services will be needed to keep HSR up and running.”

Details are unclear about how the original 450,000 number was developed almost 15 years ago. Did the estimate take into account the potential of automated technologies that would develop between 2003 and 2035? Will there actually be 450,000 permanent jobs created to operate and maintain California High-Speed Rail?

Unions expect it and may demand it. As reported by the California Policy Center (see Unions Stand By Beleaguered California High-Speed Rail), unions have been the most committed supporters of high-speed rail since the campaign for Proposition 1A in the fall of 2008. Automation would undo their dream of representing hundreds of thousands of workers employed by a massive transportation agency and its contractors.

If union leaders are determined to get 450,000 jobs from the system, they’ll need to convince the state government to intervene with policies that protect rail occupations from automation. Expect bills in the legislature – many promoted under the guise of “safety” – that would restrict or prohibit automation or robotics for certain high-speed rail occupations. The California High-Speed Rail Authority could also adopt restrictions and prohibitions as regulatory policies.

Without government intervention, medical assistance may be the only occupation related to California High-Speed Rail that escapes technological advances to replace humans by 2035. First aid is unlikely to suffer the fate of chalkboards. The $40,000 donated in 2008 to the Yes on Proposition 1A campaign by the California Nurses Association may end up as the only union campaign contribution that pays off in terms of new workers to represent.


Kevin Dayton, a frequent contributor to CPC’s Prosperity Digest, is the President & CEO of Labor Issues Solutions, LLC, and is the author of frequent postings about generally unreported California state and local policy issues at www.laborissuessolutions.com. Follow him on Twitter at @DaytonPubPolicy.

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