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Pulling together through a pandemic

April 2020

Pictured in late March at Inman Yard in Atlanta, Mike Farrell, senior VP operations and mechanical, is leading NS’ Operations Command Center in the fight against COVID-19.

NS is ‘fighting from the front’ to combat COVID-19

In the battle against the coronavirus pandemic, Norfolk Southern’s Operations Command Center is the railroad’s virtual ground zero.

Because this airborne enemy requires social distancing, the center’s morning meetings, at 8:30 sharp seven days a week, occur via LoopUp telephone conference. Mike Farrell, senior vice president operations and mechanical, leads the charge, presiding over a call that that involves key department leaders across operations, customer service, marketing, network planning, sourcing, and safety and environmental. The interactive call is a combination of information sharing and problem solving, making sure there are no blind spots to catch people off guard.

 “This is a very collaborative effort to bring all the right people in the operating groups together to continually fight COVID-19 from the front, united as one team,” Farrell says. “As quickly as everything is moving, we need to continue to serve our customers and meet their needs and, just important, make sure we are meeting the needs of our own employees.”

“Fighting from the front” has become a rallying cry for NS. On the command center calls, the phrase is heard repeatedly as department leaders discuss protecting the health and safety of our employees and keeping ahead of issues that could affect service. Farrell brought the phrase with him when he joined NS in late 2018 to lead our implementation of precision scheduled railroading. It has since become part of NS’ common vernacular.

“Rather than just let things happen, when you truly fight from the front, you go out there and make things happen,” Farrell says. “You set up proper triggers and escalations to deal with exceptions as they occur – you’re always fighting them before they get to the point of failure.”

Maintaining network performance and customer service

By fighting from the front, NS has maintained high levels of network performance and helped customers trouble-shoot supply-chain pipeline issues. For example, as states took steps to prevent the spread of COVID-19, including stay-at-home orders, NS customer operations and marketing teamed up to send thousands of emails and make customer calls to ensure we could support their supply-chain needs.

That’s fighting from the front, trying to find out something before it happens to make the right decisions each and every day, Farrell says. NS has taken the same approach to protect employees on the front lines of operations who report to on-site jobs and help keep the economy moving, including train crews, mechanical shop employees, and engineering gangs.

“We’re making sure that the equipment and offices are being cleaned, that we’re taking risks away from the employees,” says Greg Comstock, vice president network operations, who covers things such as train crew availability and overall network performance on the command center call. “We’ve got social distancing in place, whether it’s spreading out dispatchers in the network operations center or reducing face-to-face turnovers. We’re making sure our employees get the cleaning and sanitation supplies they need, and we’re going above and beyond what is required by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.”

In addition, operations leaders are holding regular calls with rail labor union general chairmen to flag concerns in the field and address those from the front, too.

“People don’t realize the effort it’s taken from the field to get us to where we are,” says Tom Schnautz, vice president advanced train control, who reports on performance around locomotives and positive train control on the call. “A month ago this was a nonissue, and today we’ve completely changed our entire organization from the field perspective of how we clean our locomotives, how we clean our crew rooms, and how we’re keeping track of our supplies. This has been a big lift. Fortunately, the NS team has been agile enough to move with these changes.”

A team effort to do the right things

In early March, CEO Jim Squires tapped Farrell to set up and lead the command center meetings. During the calls, key department heads report on the state of the railroad and any COVID-19-related work issues. Other senior leaders, including members of Squires’ executive team, listen in and contribute if needed.

“It’s a team effort,” says Pat Whitehead, vice president transportation. “It’s all departments pitching in to make sure we’re doing the right things to keep our employees safe and keep the vital goods moving. It’s all of our departments working to make sure we’re supporting each other.”

During the meetings, Whitehead provides a report that includes challenges facing our yards and terminals, such as yards taking longer than six hours to switch rail cars, a key operating metric.

Other leaders giving daily reports on the call:

  • Ed Boyle, vice president engineering, reports on engineering activities, including the status of production and maintenance-of-way gangs.

  • John Friedmann, vice president network planning and optimization, discusses adjustments being made to NS’ TOP21 operating plan in response to changes in traffic mix or volume.

  • Karol Lawrence, vice president customer operations, covers things such as cars-on-line and service issues involving key customers.

  • Doug McNeill, group vice president strategic market coordination, focuses on issues involving our intermodal and auto business.

  • Jon Zillioux, assistant vice president sourcing, outlines efforts to secure cleaning and sanitation supplies and the status of contractors who provide our road train crews with taxi service and lodging.

  • Panos Kokkinos, director facilities services, provides updates on such matters as cleaning services at NS’ Goode Building in Atlanta.

  • Jason Morris, assistant vice president safety and environmental, reports on issues related to NS’ efforts to ensure the safety and health of our employees.

  • Mike McClellan, vice president strategic planning, provides updates on operations at subsidiaries and affiliates that have the potential to impact NS. 

The NS team will power through this

When the command center group was formed, the initial thinking was to hold two calls a day. That hasn’t been necessary, thanks to the hard work of employees who keep the trains running and the proactive efforts of operations leaders.

“As things change, we are very flexible on increasing the frequency of these meetings,” says Farrell, “but we haven’t had to do that because issues are escalated and resolved as they occur. We’ve really been in good shape with regard to the operation of our railroad.”

By continuing to fight from the front as a team, NS will power through the COVID-19 crisis as we serve our customers and meet the needs of businesses and households in communities across America.