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Amid COVID-19, good OPTCS

May 2020

A gate agent at NS’ Inman Yard intermodal facility in Atlanta uses the OPTCS Mobile Gating application to read an ExpressNS QR code from a truck driver’s device, increasing efficiencies and enabling social distancing.

With new operating system, NS Customer Operations Support raises the bar for efficiency, safety at intermodal facilities

As part of Norfolk Southern’s strategic plan to transform operations, a heightened focus on efficiency remains front-and-center at company intermodal facilities. While crucial in every aspect of daily operations, efficiency is especially important here because of the continuous “changing of hands” between trains and trucks that occur by the hour.

For that same reason, and in light of COVID-19, practicing necessary safety precautions and social distancing recommendations also is vitally important.

NS is achieving both efficiencies and safety as we expand use of cutting-edge technology to optimize operations at our intermodal facilities, which handle millions of shipping containers every year. Handling inbound and outbound shipments as they are processed and transferred from one mode of transportation to another requires precise attention to detail, collaboration, and an innovative terminal operating system, said Kamal Patel, group manager business solutions.

“A terminal operating system, generally speaking, is the technology that’s used by intermodal facility employees and customers alike to make all processes safe, efficient, and accountable,” added Patel.

About seven years ago, NS began developing a replacement for what had become an outdated legacy system with one that leverages modern technology tools. The new system is called OPTCS, for Optimized Terminal Control System. Over the past two years, in particular, the efficiencies achieved and adoption of the technology by truck drivers have been on the rise.

According to Krista McClure, director customer support, approximately 43% of all truck drivers at NS intermodal facilities currently use ExpressNS, a mobile app system within the OPTCS application. Two years ago, it was just 19%. McClure believes the adoption rate will continue to rise.

“For those who have used the new system, the reactions are overwhelmingly positive,” McClure said. “From the time they enter our facility to when they leave, the experience is more efficient and more pleasant.”

In the wake of COVID-19, there is now additional incentive for OPTCS use.

“In the environment that we’re in with COVID-19, OPTCS functionality, specifically ExpressNS, is a huge plus for everyone because it allows you to do what you need to do on your own with minimal to no interaction with other people,” said Kevin Saunders, AVP intermodal and automotive. “Prior to COVID-19, the ExpressNS metrics show time and again that if drivers use the new system, they spend less time in our facilities.”

Going the distance

As is often the case with significant change, OPTCS has been implemented gradually. When ExpressNS was introduced a few years ago, NS became the first Class I railroad to offer a mobile app giving truckers quicker access to terminals and their shipment information. Another enhancement came with the addition of Terminal Inventory, which enables the facilities to track and tag container inventory using mobile devices and GPS. Then there was Load Plan, a computerized optimization tool that rapidly determines the most efficient way to load container units by shipment priority onto rail cars.

The transformation really began with ExpressNS, the cornerstone of it all, according to Patel. With this application, truck drivers entering an intermodal facility use their mobile phones to scan a QR code that not only gets them past the gate, but immediately provides all necessary shipment data. No more manual entry of extensive information – and the efficiencies don’t stop there.

Over time, the benefits of using ExpressNS have continued to increase with additional phases of OPTCS, such as Terminal Inventory now being implemented. This application, by way of integrated GPS, allows ExpressNS drivers to see exactly where their shipment is on a map once they’re inside the facility, generating multiple benefits. It means faster service for customers. It’s good for the environment because the truckers spend less time idling and burning fuel in the facility. In the time of COVID-19, it eliminates the need to interact with an inventory clerk in order to locate a shipment, thus allowing for social distancing.

Life for the NS inventory clerk is also made simpler with Terminal Inventory, added Patel. Using a hand-held mobile device, as opposed to the larger, heavier legacy devices, all of the information for a shipment will auto-populate after only a few entries. Once completed, their mobile device GPS marks the location of the shipment, making it easier and more efficient for truck drivers using ExpressNS to find.

The Load Plan application takes the internal efficiencies further by automating the process used to load shipments onto rail cars. An NS load planner now selects the cars and containers to be shipped, and Load Plan takes over the optimization process.

Taking it yet another step, last year NS deployed OPTCS Yard Management, which Patel said resulted in a significant paradigm shift in operations. Historically, when operators in rail yards – think hostlers and cranes – would move containers and chassis, their equipment lacked any computer technology, making the operation vulnerable to redundant effort.

“Prior to Yard Management, they would get a paper list of work orders that needed doing, but had no efficient way to track progress,” said Patel. “Now, for example, each hostler operator’s truck is equipped with a computer that not only manages the jobs as they come in, but also allows all other operators to see when one is claimed or completed.”

Additionally, when hostler operators park chassis alongside rail cars, the Yard Management application pre-populates that information into the older system still being used by crane operators. As a result, the crane operators’ work load is reduced because they no longer have to manually enter the information associated with each chassis. Soon, that legacy system will be replaced with the Yard Management solution in cranes as well, as intermodal facilities complete the OPTCS transition. The end result is to achieve a universal, modern interface that will greatly improve end-user experience, business flexibility, and agility.

Increasing capacity to grow business

As OPTCS approaches full implementation this year, one of the final objectives is to have mobile gating account for 100% of gate transactions, said Patel. Presently, it stands at approximately 95%. Following the final-phase rollout of OPTCS, every in-gate and out-gate transaction will be conducted via mobile hand-held device.

If there’s a common theme through it all, it’s efficiency. The operating efficiencies have effectively increased terminal capacity, while the ability to get customers in and out faster, making  them happier, is an effective way to grow business without investing resources into facility expansions.

Adding to the importance of these innovations, the COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the need for timely, efficient, and autonomous business solutions. While it is crucial to the health of the economy that NS continue to move freight, it is even more important that the processes in place do so safely. The transformation of company intermodal facilities is yet another example of how NS is leading on both fronts.