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Grit and hard work = success

Fall 2013

Walter Allen, Mike Cory, and Bobby Brown, tie a collier to the pier’s lay berth
Teamwork is critical at Pier 6. Here, left to right, Walter Allen, car dumper operator, Mike Cory, loader operator, and Bobby Brown, relief operator, tie a collier to the pier’s lay berth, where it waited its turn for loading.


Inside Norfolk Terminal’s headquarters building, a poster in the second-floor conference room across from the superintendent’s office reads: “Companies don’t succeed … People Do.” A nearby plaque says: “Rule #1: If we don’t take care of the customer, somebody else will.”

At Pier 6 and Lamberts Point yard, those are the things that matter most, said Jeff Yates, superintendent terminals.

“We’ve got to sell coal and we’ve got to have buyers, but none of those customers would receive what they want without our employees at Norfolk,” Yates said. “The employees here understand the importance of customer service, they understand productivity, and they understand safety and the rules. With that understanding, they have helped earn NS a global reputation as a top market performer.”

A key ingredient is a good working relationship between the management team and employees, he added.

“We are all on the same page, and that’s why you see these coal-loading records being broken,” he said. “I’ve moved around nine times in my career, and I have never been anywhere where the departments, the management, and the employees were as effective. The leadership that the management team provides and the quality of employees are what make this place such a success.”

CEO Wick Moorman reinforced that view during the pier’s 50th anniversary celebration, an event that drew Virginia’s governor and Norfolk’s mayor. “The pier itself is concrete and steel – what makes it work are our people,” he said.

Keeping the lights on

About 500 employees work at Lamberts Point and the coal pier. The Mechanical Department, at about 240 strong, has the largest presence. They include machinists, pipefitters, and electricians who maintain and repair the mechanical and electrical systems of the monstrously large equipment that dumps, conveys, and loads coal at the pier. Mechanical employees also operate the coal car pushers, the tandem dumpers, and the twin shiploaders that transfer coal from hopper and gondola cars to vessels. Carmen carefully inspect cars for defects and repair them.

Approximately 220 Transportation Department employees – including yardmasters, yard engineers, and conductors/brakemen – switch and maneuver coal cars. Trainmasters, piermasters, cargo coordinators, and clerks manage the complex choreography between yard and pier, making sure arriving vessels are matched with cars carrying coal the customer ordered.

Rounding out the workforce are Engineering Department employees. They include maintenance-of-way workers who keep the yard’s 150 miles of track in top condition and the carpenters and welders with the bridges and building group who maintain the terminal buildings and the structural steel of the dumping and loading equipment.

When ships are at the pier, Lamberts Point is a 24/7 operation. During the past year, work stopped for two days while Hurricane Sandy passed and on Thanksgiving and Christmas – but employees could be called in on those holidays. On his second day at the pier after hiring on as a helper/operator in 1981, Ray Jones, now assistant division manager mechanical operations, was asked to work overtime on a third-shift job. After finishing, Jones was amazed to learn he had to stay on for his regular first-shift job, making for a 16-hour day.

“If we need them, our employees will come in and support us,” Jones said. “We try to keep going. Like Motel 6, we’ve always got the lights on.”

Employees constantly look for ways to improve processes at the pier, Jones said. As part of its commitment to ISO – international operating standards designed to improve efficiencies - the Mechanical Department has compiled a “Top 10” list of things that cause delays at Pier 6 and has challenged employees to prevent them from recurring. Employees have helped upgrade pier machinery, including replacing hard-wired mechanical operating systems with computer-based programmable logic controllers. “Our guys are very proud that they do this in-house to keep equipment running longer and to improve the reliably of the loading equipment,” Jones said.

Every department is focused on a single goal - keeping the pier running, said Rodney Mangum, agent terminal control. “I can tell you that we work best in times of trouble,” said Mangum, who started at Lamberts Point 39 years ago as a track laborer. “It’s just amazing the way we come together as a team.”

Challenges arise daily. On one recent day, the yard adjusted operations while a maintenance-of-way crew repaired a broken rail. On another, a dumper was shut down while a mechanical crew repaired a hopper feeder belt that is part of the conveyor belt system feeding coal from dumper to shiploader.

“There are so many mechanical parts, and everything is moving,” said George Riggs, a machinist supervisory gang leader wearing a hard hat streaked with coal dust that seemed baked-on. “Pretty much anything we can do to make something run better or safer is what we do.”

Every day is different

At the center of activity is a four-story operations center, opened in December 2012 as part of Lamberts Point upgrades. Loaded coal cars pass by the center as they roll toward the dumpers from a yard employees call the barney yard, where coal cars are sorted on 32 tracks. An observation deck on the center’s top floor offers a panoramic view of the pier and yard and is a hit with customers, said Dan Welch, senior piermaster, who works in a second-floor office.

“Customers from all over the world come here to visit, and I can’t tell you how invaluable this is,” Welch said of the deck. “You really see how it all plays out up there.”

As a piermaster, Welch juggles many responsibilities. He talks with ship captains about how their vessels will be loaded, coordinates ship arrivals with the Coast Guard and Customs and Border Patrol, and makes sure NS crews deliver the correct coal carloads to the vessels.

“There’s something different going on every day,” Welch said. “From hour to hour it changes.”

A big part of the operation is ensuring that customers get what they ordered.
“If you put a wrong car of coal in the vessel, you’ve contaminated the whole load,” said Jeff Ornoff, general yardmaster. Yard crews pull and switch cars in the barney yard, arranging them on tracks based on the class of coal inside. With orders passed down from the piermaster, conductor/brakemen release the brakes on cars and let them roll by gravity toward the dumpers. An apparatus called a barney mule pushes the cars up an incline to the dumpers.

“Communication is extremely important over here,” said L.J. Cannon, yard foreman, who had a handheld radio microphone clipped to the top of his t-shirt.

With both dumpers operating, as many as eight cars might be rolling in the barney yard. “You always have to expect movement from any direction, any track, anytime,” said Ronnie Wilson, a conductor/brakeman. “One thing you can’t do out here is get complacent.”

A typical coal train arriving at the pier has 160 to 180 cars, each filled with about 106 tons of coal. “When you talk about heavy equipment, nothing gets heavier than what we haul here,” said Thomas Adams, a yard conductor and union representative.

When he hired on 33 years ago, Adams recalls clerks “walking the train” to manually record the numbers off coal cars to sort them. Now, video cameras and electronic transponders identify the car, class of coal, and customer as trains pull into the yard. “The efficiency and utilization have really improved,” he said.

While the Lamberts Point storage yard can hold 6,200 coal cars, emphasis has shifted to on-time delivery, said Chris Davis, a trainmaster who hired on 17 years ago as a conductor. “It makes business sense,” he said. “If we don’t have as many cars sitting in storage, we don’t need as many cars in the fleet.” On a day in September, about 3,500 loaded cars were in the yard. “If we get up to 5,000 loads, we start to get a little antsy,” he said.

Rick Hodges, a pier veteran of 34 years, has been a coal dumper operator for the past 25. At full capacity, he safely can flip two cars at a time about every two minutes. Seated inside a window-paneled cab a few feet away and slightly above a 600-ton, barrel-like dumper, he maneuvers handles that resemble a car stick shift. His left hand operates a track retarder that stops the cars, while his right hand flips the dumper 220 degrees to empty the load. He relies on his eyes and ears.

“It’s about knowing the machines and knowing all the noises,” he said, noting, for example, that the retarders act differently in snow and rain. “If anything is wrong with the dumper, I can usually hear it. I can tell if certain bolts are getting loose.”

Working at the pier is a unique career choice, said Roy Robinson, a former mechanical gang leader.  On the last Saturday of September, he said goodbye to the place, retiring after 34 years. He started as a helper/operator.

“I have always been mesmerized by this operation,” Robinson said. “It’s amazing to me that an engineer could create something like this in his mind and build it and then 50 years later, it’s still leading the pack. I don’t know of anything that’s been around that long that hasn’t become a buggy whip.”

Fred Page and Ronnie Williams work in the yard at Lamberts Point
Brakemen Fred Page, left, and Ronnie Williams work in the yard at Lamberts Point, releasing coal cars to the dumpers.
Ronnie Wilson at Lamberts Point coal yard
Ronnie Wilson, conductor/brakeman, works in the yard at Lamberts Point. Communication in the yard is vital, and Wilson keeps his radio microphone clipped on his shirt collar for easy access.
Mechanical Department employees inspect and maintain twin coal dumpers at Pier 6
Mechanical Department employees inspect and maintain the twin coal dumpers at Pier 6. Pictured inside one of the dumpers are, from left to right, Mike Richardson, machinist, Hez Faison, car dumper operator, and David Franklin, machinist, who is doing welding work.
Drew Tonnesen inspecting a coal conveyor belt
Drew Tonnesen, machinist, inspects a coal conveyor belt at Pier 6.