Mention big business at Norfolk Southern and most employees probably think of intermodal or coal, the railroad’s two largest markets in terms of volume and revenue.
For Larry Dillon, NS manager clearance, big business is more literal – as in huge nuclear reactor vessels that weigh more than a million pounds and hulking bulldozers and backhoes that need to be moved from inland manufacturing plants to East Coast ports.
Known in the industry as "dimensional or high-wide shipments, these supersize loads are among the most massive, cumbersome, and unique cargo that NS transports. Along with power plant parts such as turbines and generators, the railroad every year routinely carries between 4,600 and 6,000 shipments of bulldozers, backhoes, farm equipment, components for wind energy towers, and heat exchangers. In 2014, dimensional shipments generated around $37 million in revenue for NS.
"It’s an important market for us, said Jim Schaaf, group vice president industrial products, metals and construction. "It’s a highly specialized segment of business that takes a lot of care and trust between the NS team and our customers.
Planning with laser focus
Because of their size and unwieldiness, high-wide shipments require detailed coordination and planning involving NS, the shipper, the receiver, localities, states, and other railroads. Before a move, clearances for structures along the route, as well as for power lines, trees, and vegetation, must be obtained.
That’s where Dillon comes in.
"We really don’t know how to move a load until we run the clearances through our clearance system, said Dillon.
NS’ Engineering Department uses lasers to measure obstructions along the route and downloads that information into a database tied into NS’ clearance system.
"We put a special rail car in and relay the dimensions, and it calculates whether the car can move through safely, Dillon said. "We’ll work with whatever type of circuitous route we can and include as many carriers as we need to get from point A to point B. There are a lot of things we can do. We just have to get creative.
During the past few years, NS began moving nuclear power plant components from the port of Savannah to a construction site in eastern Georgia, including 22-foot tall, 20-foot wide, 1.5 million-pound reactor vessels. The pieces, manufactured by Westinghouse Electric, are among the largest NS has ever transported.
The move was so complex it required four years of logistics planning.
Working with Westinghouse and power company officials, NS had to map the best route, clear obstructions along the way, modify structures, obtain special oversized freight cars, and ensure that other rail traffic would not be impeded.
"We held a lot of meetings and kept going over all the drawings, Dillon said. "We’ve made a few shipments now, and everything has gone well.
Since 2012, NS has moved more than 290 carloads of Westinghouse nuclear power plant components for the plant in Georgia and another in South Carolina.
To accommodate high-wide loads, shippers typically lease rail cars known as Schnabel cars -- heavy-duty flat cars designed for oversized loads. Traveling a maximum speed of 15 mph, Schnabel cars have lifting arms that suspend the load between the two ends of the car. Some have hydraulic equipment that enables train crews to shift the load from side to side to bypass obstructions such as bridges. The Schnabel car used to move the nuclear facility components is the largest rail car built in America, Dillon said.
In some cases, even a Schnabel car cannot clear obstructions. That means the impediments must be cleared or altered or the shipper chooses another route.
“You almost have to rebuild the railroad in some sections,” said Schaaf. For example, NS engineering employees helped restructure the Congaree River Bridge on the route used to move reactor parts from Charleston’s port to a South Carolina power plant.
Special crews are required to operate the Schnabel cars, and some NS divisions wait until the weekend or nonpeak hours to run high-wide loads.
“These things are so large they change everything,” Dillon said. “Additional handling is required and there are speed reductions. We can’t run them like a regular car.”
For exceptionally large shipments, a trainmaster or road foreman must be on site during the move. “The cost of those things is phenomenal,” Dillon said. “We want to make sure it’s a smooth move and that there are no issues.”
The heaviest loads
Machinery makes up most of NS’ high-wide shipments. Major customers include Case New Holland, Caterpillar, and John Deere, with shipments frequently delivered to ports in Baltimore, Norfolk, Charleston, Savannah, and New Orleans.
Some of NS’ high-wide shipments have originated out of Charlotte, N.C., where Siemens Energy opened a gas turbine plant in 2011. NS also serves a Caterpillar plant in Decatur, Ill., that builds and exports front-end loaders.
Over the past several years, NS has moved large wind-energy components manufactured at Gamesa Corporation’s plants in Pennsylvania. That includes moving wind-turbine generators to the West Coast, interchanging with BNSF along the route. Some of the components weigh up to 10 tons, while other parts, such as long turbine blades, pose challenges along curved sections of track where clearances are restrictive.
In one of its more unusual moves, NS hauled a solid rocket booster for NASA’s space shuttle program, interchanging with Union Pacific and Florida East Coast Railroad as the booster made its way to Cape Canaveral, Fla.
One of NS’ largest moves occurred in December 2012 when the railroad transported a 1.1 million-pound, 19-foot tall Mitsubishi generator from the Lamberts Point terminal to Virginia’s inland port in Front Royal.
“We had to relocate a rock slide fence and modify a bridge for that move,” Dillon said.
A Unilevel solution
Another high-wide market for NS is large, heavy-duty vehicles, such as military equipment, fire trucks, street sweepers, delivery vans, and recreational vehicles. NS moves some of these loads on specially designed Unilevel rail cars. These 81-foot-long cars boast a 127,000-pound load limit and are fully enclosed to protect the vehicles during transport.
“Manufacturing customers receive dealer-fresh vehicles almost to their doorstep,” said Tim Butt, market manager yield & assets in automotive.
NS launched the Unilevel car service about six years ago. NS’ automotive group worked with Modalgistics®, the NS supply-chain services subsidiary, and TTX, an industry-owned rail car provider, to design the cars.
“We saw an opportunity,” said Butt, “and we think there’s a market out there for this car type.”
Currently, most of NS’ Unilevel business involves shipping Sprinter vans from the Daimler AG Mercedes plant outside Charleston, S.C., to the western states.
Alternative fuel vehicles could be NS automotive’s next growth market, said Rick Parsons, manager assets & planning in automotive. That includes electric trucks and transit buses as well as vehicles powered by compressed natural gas, such as sanitation trucks, school buses, and other specialty vehicles.
“We’d like to be the first option that people think of when they have an alternative fuel truck or specialty vehicle they need to transport,” Parsons said.
Positioning NS as the go-to company for moving such large loads, Parsons added, helps the railroad hone its reputation as a leader and innovator in high-wide shipping markets.
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