Skip to main content

NS solution keeps Ford riding tall on rail

Summer 2014

 NS bi-level automotive train
An NS bi-level automotive train moves through the countryside.
Side-by-side view of high- and medium-roof Ford Transits.
A medium-roof Transit being loaded in a modified bi-level railcar.

Norfolk Southern works with customers to develop innovative solutions to business challenges. Creative thinking by employees in NS’ equipment planning and automotive marketing groups has provided Ford Motor Company, a major automotive customer, with an economical, sustainable solution for shipping new-generation Transit vans by rail.

Ford’s all-new Transit made its U.S. debut in June, replacing the venerable E-series. The Transit, manufactured for North American markets at Ford’s Kansas City Assembly Plant, is available in low, medium, and high roof heights.

Two years ago, as Ford prepared to introduce the vehicle to U.S. markets, it became apparent that only Transits with low roofs would fit in the bi-level railcars the industry uses to move automobiles. The new medium- and high-roof Transits, at up to 110 inches high, were too tall. NS, which has the largest U.S. rail market share for Transit vans, stepped up with a solution.

“Norfolk Southern developed an idea to modify articulated bi-level railcars for Ford, and we helped garner support from Union Pacific, Canadian National, and TTX,” said Joseph Skinner, NS group manager for Ford. UP and CN work with NS in moving the Transits to West Coast and Canadian markets, while TTX is an industry-owned railcar pooling company.

“The rail industry partners, TTX, and Ford had working sessions to identify items that needed to be modified and concerns that needed to be addressed, which we handled in a very collaborative way,” Skinner said.

NS led the team in a six-month project. The primary modification involved raising the middle deck of the railcars. This enabled Ford to ship high- and medium-roof vans in the lower level, while moving standard-size vehicles, such as the Mustang, Focus, Fusion, and Fiesta, in the top section.

Initially, NS developed a prototype using an articulated bi-level railcar and worked with Ford on test loads at NS’ automobile mixing center facility in Melvindale, Mich., near the automaker’s Detroit headquarters. The articulated bi-levels are about 50 feet longer than a conventional bi-level, allowing NS to maximize the number of vehicles transported, said Mike Rimer, NS manager automotive fleet planning.

“We did test loads to determine what the exact specifications needed to be,” Rimer said. “Because
of the varied lengths of the Ford Transit product and the need to maximize the load factor on the lower deck, the longer articulated car became a natural choice.”

Ultimately, TTX, which owns the articulated bi-level cars, paid for the modifications, contracting with an outside facility that works with the rail industry on railcar repairs and upgrades, Rimer said. Raising the railcar’s middle deck involved removing deck bolts, brackets, and supports and then reinstalling them
at a higher level.

Lori Shinney, NS director automotive sales, noted that the automotive business is very dynamic as automakers design and build vehicles to meet customer demands for size and shape. NS, in turn, works with customers to ensure that the ever-changing vehicles remain on rail.

“We strive to come up with innovative and creative solutions to assist our customers,” she said. “We try not to take ‘no’ as an option and provide alternatives to resolve their challenges.”

Ford Transits are shipped to North American markets from NS’ Kansas City Automotive Distribution Center, which handles nearly 300,000 vehicles annually. Ford filmed a promotional video at NS’ distribution center highlighting the Transit transportation solution. In the video, Sean Grant of Ford’s North American Vehicle Logistics noted that delivering vehicles long distance by rail is more economical than moving them by trucks over the highway.

“By modifying these railcars,” Grant said, “we found a cost-effective, sustainable solution that brings value to the customer.”