NS employees show what service and performance are all about during a hurricane like no other
As Hurricane Matthew bore down on the Atlantic Coast, the biggest challenge facing Norfolk Southern was how to prepare for a major storm that threatened to disrupt train operations from Florida to Virginia.
“This hurricane impacted us like no other,” said Ed Boyle, assistant vice president maintenance of way and structures. “We frequently plan for hurricanes and severe storms, but typically they hit one major location. This hurricane touched every port location we operate on the Southeast coast.”
- Phil Merilli, vice president engineering
From Oct. 6 to Oct. 9 – Thursday evening to Sunday afternoon – Matthew churned up the coast, bringing heavy wind, rain, and flooding to five states in NS’ service territory and affecting port terminals from Jacksonville, Fla., to Norfolk, Va. For such a wide impact, however, NS weathered the storm with less damage and fewer service disruptions than expected.
If Matthew is the villain of this story, NS employees are the heroes. Their efforts are responsible for the railroad’s resilience and quick return to service on mainline routes in storm-hit areas, NS operations leaders said.
“I can’t say enough about how all the departments worked together to follow through with the plan and to do it safely,” said Phil Merilli, vice president engineering. “We were running trains on a lot of these routes within 12 hours after the storm hit. It was just a well-orchestrated effort.”
“This was textbook – good planning, good execution. Our people were hitting home runs everywhere.”
- Terry Evans, vice president transportation
“This was textbook – good planning, good execution,” said Terry Evans, vice president transportation. “Our people were hitting home runs everywhere.”
NS went the extra mile to serve affected customers, including helping intermodal customers through the storm by handling additional premium freight between Jacksonville and points north. Employees at NS’ Simpson Yard in Jacksonville earned special praise, managing to process the extra business on top of their normal traffic while facing mandatory evacuation from the flood-prone yard.
“Your teams did a phenomenal job,” Jeff Heller, vice president intermodal and automotive, wrote in an email to Evans and his transportation general managers after the storm.
The ability to rapidly restore operations represented NS at its best.
“It was a coordinated effort across the Southern Region to safely and efficiently get those critical routes opened back up,” Boyle said. “The planning and coordination that went into this ahead of time really made it a seamless operation.”
Careful planning and preparation pay off
Before the storm hit, the Engineering Department’s maintenance-of-way group positioned people and equipment at strategic locations, including ballast trains, excavators, backhoes and other machines used to repair washouts. As the storm moved up the coast, downed trees posed the main problem on NS’ core routes. Prepositioned track gangs swooped in to clear more than 2,000 trees.
The most serious track damage occurred on the Piedmont Division. Flooding triggered by heavy rainfall caused 12 washouts in North Carolina on the connecting H and EC lines between Raleigh and the port at Morehead City. NS track gangs repaired most of the washouts within hours, including one that restored Amtrak service. However, gangs had to wait a week for flood waters to recede from sections of track east of Selma before restoring service on Oct. 18. Track workers quickly repaired the only washout not on the Piedmont – a 25-foot section of the South Branch Line near Norfolk on the Pocahontas Division. Altogether, track crews handled more than 20,000 tons of ballast and rip-rap to make the track repairs.
Communications and signals employees staged 300 to 400 generators and fuel on trailers that could be quickly dispatched to power radio communications, signals, switches, and road crossings in places that lost electricity. C&S crews also secured crossing gates before the storm to protect them from wind damage. These preventive efforts helped speed the recovery, said Jim Alexander, assistant vice president C&S.
“The employees are very good at this,” he said. “They get out there ahead of time, they know their equipment, and they take preventive measures to have the material and people in place to react as we need.”
In what is thought to be a first, NS used its Brosnan Forest conference center in Dorchester, S.C., as a staging area for engineering craft employees for six nights before, during, and after Matthew.
“We had never used the Forest facilities for this type of activity,” Alexander said. “There was no power at nearby hotels, and restaurants weren’t open. At the Forest, we could keep our people out of harm’s way and have that kind of family atmosphere you wouldn’t get with everybody in a hotel someplace.”
In another first for operations, NS’ network and service management group placed a “global hold” on traffic headed to coastal areas in the potential path of the storm, stopping it at terminals as far away as Elkhart, Ind. In the past, NS typically held traffic at terminals immediately outside storm-impacted areas, where freight tended to build up. The global hold proved effective, easing post-storm congestion and making it easier to restore normal operations, said Rob Dickson, senior director service design.
“After the storm, we were able to release the traffic strategically, so we could meter it back into the affected areas,” said Dickson, who led an operations command center in Atlanta to help coordinate train movements across the network. “It kept the traffic from bunching and reduced congestion in the affected locations.”
Managing traffic and customer relations play critical role
Throughout the storm, NS employees worked as a team to keep customers updated on service delivery issues and to minimize disruptions in their supply chains, said Steve Ewers, assistant vice president service management.
“The level of communication and coordination between all departments – marketing, transportation, engineering, and network and service management – was as good as I’ve ever seen.”
- Steve Ewers, assistant vice president service management
“The level of communication and coordination between all departments – marketing, transportation, engineering, and network and service management – was as good as I’ve ever seen,” Ewers said. “When it comes to managing customers’ shipments and pipelines, it’s critical we take into consideration what happens if the effects of the storm are more severe than we anticipate. Another challenge was not knowing where the storm would hit, so we had to have a plan A, B, and C.”
A prime example of customer outreach, Ewers said, was NS’ efforts to accommodate the BMW auto plant in South Carolina and the Mercedes Benz plant in Alabama. To assist BMW, NS coordinated with the port of Charleston to have auto racks reloaded with more than 600 export vehicles and then moved the vehicles inland to prevent potential storm damage. In addition, NS hustled to make additional auto racks available to the BMW and Mercedes facilities, enabling the automakers to continue loading finished vehicles and keep their production lines moving.
“The biggest challenge was ensuring that these plants continued to receive empties even though their normal supply of empty rail cars was shut off,” Ewers said. “We had to accomplish this while meeting the production needs of all the other auto plants on our system not directly affected by the hurricane. This was no easy task and could only be accomplished by a high degree of communication and planning.”
Helping the automakers took on added significance as North American automotive production this year has outpaced 2015 record levels. “With such strong demand in the marketplace, it was important to maintain a reliable supply chain for our automotive customers as much as possible throughout the storm,” said Kathleen Smith, group vice president automotive marketing. “The NS team responded when it counted, and our customers appreciate those extra efforts.”
Another story of exceptional customer service is how transportation, engineering, mechanical, and intermodal worked together on short notice to score extra premium freight that otherwise would have faced disruptive delays. NS ran more than 600 additional loads for premium customers between Jacksonville and its intermodal facilities in Chicago, Memphis, Tenn., Rutherford, Pa., and Croxton, N.J.
- Harris Ligon, market manager intermodal
NS’ ability to accommodate these customers strengthens its business relationships, said Harris Ligon, market manager intermodal.
“With the amount of effort that went into this, it reinforces the fact that Norfolk Southern is a truly customer-focused organization,” Ligon said. “It shows our premium customers that they can continue to rely on NS to handle business that is not only service-sensitive but is at a higher volume than other modes can accommodate on short notice. That always builds goodwill.”
Kevin Saunders, director intermodal marketing, said employees at NS’ Simpson Yard in Jacksonville earned “Intermodal Hero of the Week” for handling the extra premium loads while loading regularly scheduled outbound freight. Employees delivered the goods even though the yard was shut down for 24 hours – from midnight Oct. 6 to midnight Oct. 7 – after government authorities issued a mandatory evacuation.
Before and after the storm, yard employees set the standard for safety and service, said Jonathan Sharpe, general yardmaster. They didn’t do anything different from a normal work day, he said, “except that we did it to the magnification of about 100.” He credited track maintenance employees for helping reopen the facility by clearing more than 30 trees from yard and mainline tracks at the terminal.
“We’ve got a good group of employees here who understand the importance of getting the job done, and they don’t like to fail.”
- Dahana Singleton, terminal superintendent, Simpson Yard
A couple of yard buildings had some flooding, and one door was blown off its hinges. For about two days, the yard operated on generators until commercial power was restored, making for patchy internet and phone service. Because the storm had delayed some local customers from picking up their freight, the yard’s train crews maneuvered inbound trains through a facility filled to capacity – not so easy when trying to swing blocks of cars 5,000 to 7,000 feet long, compared with normal blocks of about 2,500 feet.
“Everybody stepped up and was in place and expedited the freight through here, from the utility men and conductors and engineers to the car inspectors who tested the empty equipment we pulled from the ramp for outbound trains,” Sharpe said. “Everybody here knows that premium freight is our bread and butter. They take pride in their work, too – their safety record and their service accomplishments.”
Earlier this year, the yard’s transportation employees celebrated more than eight years without a reportable injury.
“We’ve got a good group of employees here who are very passionate about moving this freight,” said Dahana Singleton, terminal superintendent. “They understand the importance of getting the job done, and they don’t like to fail.”