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Doubling up at Bellevue yard

Winter 2015

Bellevue Yard
Rail cars roll down the hump and into new classification tracks at Bellevue.
Bellevue-map-Feb-2015

 

Located about midway between Chicago and New York, Bellevue is at a “sweet spot” on NS’ network. Five NS main lines converge there, making it a perfect location to handle freight moving in all directions.

Bellevue_20141204-2
“We’re swinging for the fence. We know
there’s a lot of attention on Bellevue, and the
employees here are capable and willing to meet
the challenges that the future brings for us.”
— Wil Washington, terminal superintendent

Norfolk Southern trains arriving at Bellevue Yard from the east roll by farm fields and red barns before easing under the Route 4 overpass bridge. From the west, they sidle by Bellevue’s small-town Main Street and picturesque two-story brick storefronts.

Since the 1800s, freight trains have coursed through Bellevue, a hub for NS predecessor roads Nickel Plate, Pennsylvania, and Norfolk & Western. Now, this railroad town has a new distinction: It is home to Norfolk Southern’s largest and North America’s second-largest freight car classification yard – only UP’s Bailey Yard in North Platte, Neb., is larger.

With a $160 million investment, NS has nearly doubled the size of a hump yard N&W opened in 1967, positioning Bellevue as a key nexus on the railroad’s busy Northern Region for at least the next generation. The expansion project, launched in spring 2012, added 38 new classification tracks to the yard’s existing 42 tracks and equipped it with a unique capability: It is the only one of NS’ 12 major yards able to classify and sort rail cars from two tracks simultaneously.

Bellevue began humping cars into the expanded yard on Nov. 11, months ahead of schedule – a testament to the planning and teamwork demonstrated by NS’ operations departments.

“We had to keep an old system working while cutting over to a new system,” said Paul Johnson, control system engineer with NS’ Communications & Signals Department. “To be able to keep the existing yard moving with very little delay while constructing a brand new yard in the middle of that was an impressive thing to watch.”

 Bellevue’s added capacity is a big deal for NS.

“I can’t tell you how important this is for us – it changes our game in the Midwest,” Terry Evans, vice president transportation, told NS marketing employees during January’s marketing kickoff meeting in Roanoke.

The yard’s management team and employees are enthused about the opportunities.

“I feel very fortunate to be a part of this,” said Wil Washington, a 21-year NS veteran who became terminal superintendent in early 2013. “When I think about the SPIRIT values, this project has given me and my team the opportunity to truly live what those values represent – safety, performance, teamwork – all of that.”

Yardmaster Jodi Barber, a Bellevue native, has worked in NS’ Bellevue and Sandusky yards for 17 years. Her father is a retired Bellevue locomotive engineer.  “I think this will bring business and people to Bellevue,” she said. “This is job security for us.”

Trainmaster Bill Krzyzak asked to be transferred to Bellevue from a small flat-switching NS yard in Manassas, Va.

“Bellevue now is the largest hump terminal on NS’ system, and I wanted to be a part of something like that,” he said. “There’s a lot riding on Bellevue being successful. We want to be the No. 1 hump terminal in performance, not only in the Northern Region but across the entire network.”

Bellevue_20141009

 

A sweet spot for expansion

Geographically, Bellevue – located about midway between Chicago and New York – is at a “sweet spot” on NS’ network, said John LeStrange, director terminal operations, Network and Service Management. Five NS main lines converge at Bellevue, making it a perfect location to handle freight moving in all directions.

Major east-west destinations out of Bellevue include Chicago, eastern Pennsylvania, and north and south New Jersey. Primary north-south destinations include the Detroit area on into Canada, Knoxville and Chattanooga, Tenn., Birmingham, Ala., and Macon, Ga.

Bellevue’s added capacity offers a win-win for NS and for customers, reducing car handlings, car miles, and transit time – translating into significant cost savings. In one huge benefit, Bellevue will build large blocks of cars that NS can hand off directly to interchange partners BNSF and UP in Chicago, easing congestion in the busy rail huband shedding costs.

In one example of savings, freight moving from the Philadelphia region to BNSF in Chicago currently is handled at four NS yards – Camden, Conway, Elkhart, and Chicago. With Bellevue’s additional capacity, NS can consolidate traffic there and bypass Conway and Elkhart. That reduces handlings by half and shaves two days of transit time off customers’ freight.

NS trains moving freight from the southeast to UP in Chicago will see similar benefits. Currently, that traffic goes through three NS yards – Chattanooga, Elkhart, and Chicago. That traffic will be diverted to Bellevue and run directly to UP, bypassing Elkhart and reducing transit time by a day.

For NS automotive customers in Detroit, Bellevue is now handling two trains that before were humped in Elkhart, a shift that reduces transit time of automotive parts by 48 hours.

“Bellevue gives us a tremendous amount of flexibility and is going to do nothing but have a positive impact on all of our performance metrics,” LeStrange said. “Once people get used to the place and how it can work, we’re going to see the railroad run as well as it ever has on the Northern Region.”

A spinoff benefit is that the Bellevue plan frees up capacity at Conway and Elkhart and opens the door for new business possibilities. With 72 classification tracks, Elkhart was NS’ largest hump yard before the Bellevue expansion.

“We’re looking at a number of options for things that we could do,” said Gary Shepard, superintendent of the Lake Division.

Bellevue_20141205
The expansion enables Bellevue to hump two trains simultaneously, the only NS yard with that capability.

 

A place where freight wants to go

Bellevue has become a focal point for NS’ growing energy markets. In particular, energy customers using hydraulic fracturing to drill for natural gas in the Marcellus and Utica shale deposits in Pennsylvania and Ohio have boosted their carloads of sand, pipe, and chemicals. Bellevue also is a major interchange for petroleum products moved by the Wheeling and Lake Erie Railroad, the largest Ohio-based regional railroad. Tanker cars moving through Bellevue carry everything from crude oil and industrial chemicals to corn syrup.

Other freight humped at Bellevue includes steel, auto parts, and a range of general merchandise traffic, from lumber and paper to canned foods. Bellevue handles a large number of multilevel rail cars that move finished autos for Chrysler in Detroit and Toledo, for GM in Ft. Wayne, Ind., and for Honda in Columbus, Ohio.

In addition, Bellevue serves important local customers. Boxcars of potatoes are delivered regularly to Packers, which operates a produce distribution facility at the rail terminal’s western boundary. Bunge, an international agribusiness and food company, operates a nearby soybean processing plant on the yard’s western edge as well. Inbound NS trains move soybeans to the plant, while outbound trains ferry out tanker cars loaded with soybean oils processed at the facility.

Trains handled at Bellevue move appliances, food products, and supplies for nearby manufacturing facilities operated by such recognizable consumer brands as Whirlpool and Heinz, and goods such as plastic pellets for Amcor, one of the world’s largest packaging manufacturers.

“We’re in the position now to handle additional business north-south or east-west on the Northern Region much more efficiently than any of the other Class I railroads,” LeStrange said. “It’s going to put our marketing people in a tremendous competitive position.”

Bellevue_20141203-2
Winters in Bellevue can be overcast, gray, and cold, but this early December sunset brings color and nature’s beauty to Bellevue Yard, illuminating some of the terminal’s 39 miles of new track.

 

Phasing in the plan

It might be spring before NS fully implements an operating plan that calls for moving 3,000 cars daily over the hump and on to outbound trains. That essentially doubles Bellevue’s pre-expansion humping numbers and leaves room to add future volume as business opportunities arise.

Phasing in the growth will get NS through the worst of winter weather and give employees time to adjust to operations in the larger yard. That includes use of the new computer process control system to hump and classify cars. The new software, supplied by NS vendor Trainyard Tech, must build a history of humping cars to be effective, including gathering and storing information about the “rollability” of specificcars in various wind and weather conditions.

“There are going to be growing pains in a project this big,” LeStrange said. “We wanted to hold off putting too much additional traffic in there until everybody gets real comfortable with the new system.”

The company’s goal is to generate 30-plus outbound trains daily at Bellevue. Consistently hitting that number will take planning, teamwork, and dedicated employees. A little luck also helps. Bad weather, damaged track, and unexpected locomotive failures can upset daily production goals.

Shepard, the Lake Division superintendent, said he is confident that Bellevue employees will deliver – as always.

“We have some outstanding employees who work out of Bellevue,” he said, “and they are very excited to do their part to make the new Bellevue successful.”

Washington, the terminal’s leader, affirmed that commitment. “We didn’t build this facility to get a base hit or a double,” he said. “We’re swinging for the fence. We know there’s a lot of attention on Bellevue, and the employees here are capable and willing to meet the challenges that the future brings for us.