Planning, teamwork, attention to detail add up to smooth start
As far as railroad acquisitions go, Norfolk Southern’s purchase of the D&H South Line was considered a “minor transaction” by the U.S. Surface Transportation Board. Bringing the 282-mile line under NS’ ownership and control, however, was a major undertaking for employees, touching nearly every department at the company.
“It was one of those rare efforts that required everyone to pitch in and coordinate, and I’m really happy with the job that representatives from all the departments did,” said John Friedmann, vice president strategic planning, who oversaw planning efforts.
“There were dozens if not hundreds of things that had to be done, and done very quickly, to maintain fluid operations.”
— Jim Ogle,
assistant superintendent, Harrisburg Division
“The biggest challenge was preparing for the day everything was switched over and not knowing if things were going to work as intended – and then having contingencies in place if they didn’t,” said Jim Ogle, assistant superintendent, Harrisburg Division. “There were dozens if not hundreds of things that had to be done, and done very quickly, to maintain fluid operations.”
After NS applied in November 2014 for STB approval to buy the line, Ogle, formerly superintendent of Croxton Yard in New Jersey, moved to Binghamton, N.Y., to understand how Canadian Pacific operated the line and to serve as NS’ “eyes and ears.”
For months before switch over day, Ogle participated in weekly conference calls with members of the NS team to discuss progress and challenges to overcome. In addition to strategic planning and transportation, key players included representatives from labor relations, human resources, information technology, communications and signals, maintenance of way, bridges and buildings, mechanical operations, dispatching, operations service and support, marketing, transportation systems, network service design, revenue accounting, law, and government relations.
“At any time, we probably had 50 people at NS working on implementation over a period of six months, in addition to doing their day jobs,” said Chip Meador, director strategic planning, who helped orchestrate planning.
When compared with deals that NS has brokered over the past two decades, Meador said the D&H line acquisition, while much smaller, is second only to the Conrail transaction in terms of complexity.
“There were a lot of details,” he said. “Knowing that the best laid plans don’t always work, we had to be nimble on our feet.”
Getting STB approval was the first step. Attorneys in NS’ law department – about eight were involved from start to finish – assembled an STB application five inches thick that examined every angle of why the deal should be approved. NS government relations, strategic planning, and marketing generated support from key constituents.
“It was a very collaborative public outreach effort across several departments. We had elected officials, shippers, and short lines supporting the transaction.”
— Maqui Parkerson,
“One of the reasons I think it went so smoothly is that we did our homework,” said Maqui Parkerson, general attorney, who oversaw the STB approval process. “It was a very collaborative public outreach effort across several departments. We had elected officials, shippers, and short lines supporting the transaction.”
NS’ execution of operations on the South Line has been relatively flawless since Day 1 of ownership. Hiccups were addressed quickly. For example, on the first day, a Saturday, communications and signals hustled to start connecting signals directly to NS’ network after getting reports that signals data being routed to NS via CP’s Minneapolis dispatch center were moving slower than anticipated.
The original plan called for passing the data through CP’s system for about the first two weeks to allow time to connect each signal directly to NS’ network. Instead, to ensure smooth train operations, C&S engineers from Atlanta and local crews worked through the weekend to install software and rewire equipment at 23 control points.
“They knew what they had to do, and they did it,” said Shane Mills, C&S senior electronic engineer. “To keep the trains moving, we work weekends, holidays, nights – it doesn’t matter.”
At sunrise on the first day, about a dozen operations service and support people dispersed along the South Line to count and inventory rail cars that CP was handing off to NS for local customers. They covered the territory in about 12 hours, counting around 850 cars.
“They checked every siding for cars tucked away and to make sure tracks we said were clear were actually clear,” said Patrick Horgan, manager OSS. “CP had sent us electronic data about the cars that were on the territory, and once we put eyes on a car, we added it into our system and brought the waybill for it over.”
In the months before that, OSS employees visited multiple times with local customers to understand their business model and gather information to design a local service operating plan. “We wanted to make sure we could give them what they needed to run their operation efficiently,” Horgan said.
In concert, employees from network services developed an operating plan for merchandise trains moving over the South Line, setting up train schedules and plans to efficiently build and route blocks of rail cars to yards and customers across the Northeast.
“It’s a dynamic plan, and we’re continuing to tweak and improve it,” said Gregg Cronk, system manager interline service.
Working mostly behind the scenes, IT employees helped to integrate operations of the new territory into NS’ computer system, and they also ordered and helped install computers and other communications infrastructure.
IT employees tweaked computer programs and helped enter data to update key business applications used by departments across the company, said Angela Glass, senior technology analyst. “A lot of coordination was required between many business areas and IT application areas,” she said. These efforts ranged from ensuring the receipt of waybills from CP to assisting with entering track elevation data to ensure safe delivery of high-wide loads over the D&H line.
Danny Arnhart, senior technology engineer, oversaw IT work on the operations side that included hooking up computers and wireless access points and working with C&S in transferring voice, data, and other communications circuits from CP’s system to NS’ network.
“We built spreadsheets and started from scratch on much of what we needed to do,” he said. In the weeks leading up to cutover day, IT rehearsed scenarios on things that could go wrong.
“Everybody knew what their function would be,” Arnhart said. “When the day actually hit, we were pleased at how smoothly things did go.”
The successful outcome is a credit to talented employees who rolled up their sleeves and worked together to advance NS’ business goals, said John Anthony, C&S assistant general supervisor.
When they were called on, they stepped up to the plate to make things happen,” Anthony said. “When you needed something done, people were there and ready to respond and got it done.”