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Rising to the challenge of COVID-19

May 2020

Members of the R-3 dual rail gang replace rail on NS’ Detroit Line between Toledo, Ohio, and Detroit. A Grove crane machine with a rail threading cart, with flag, threads new rail into cradles in the gauge of the track. Prior to the gang’s arrival, an NS rail train had placed the replacement rail along the track.

In a ‘different world,’ NS engineering gangs do their part to keep the trains moving

With Transformer-like machines moving on tracks in long assembly lines, Norfolk Southern’s program maintenance gangs rumble through communities across our network every week, replacing rail, installing wood crossties, and surfacing track.

At a time when much of America has been locked down at home, these dedicated Engineering Department employees travel the system to keep critical rail infrastructure in top shape – more important now than ever to support customer supply chains and the U.S. economy.

While the steel wheels of railroading get most of the headlines, the steel rail is equally important. Summing up engineering’s role, Jamie Puckett, senior rail supervisor, said: “We are a vital part of NS servicing our customers in a timely manner and keeping all the trains going – because with no rail, no train can run.”

Drop microphone.

Puckett leads the company’s R-3 dual rail gang, the only rail gang in the industry with the capability to remove both rails while simultaneously installing new rails on both sides. R-3 is one of NS’ 27 system production gangs that move across the network year-round to perform scheduled maintenance on rail and track infrastructure.

Roughly 1,000 strong with craft and nonagreement employees, these system gangs comprise about a quarter of NS engineering’s workforce of about 4,000, which includes division forces that handle important work such as track inspections, day-to-day maintenance, and emergency repairs. Over the past few weeks, during the COVID-19 crisis, our division forces have responded to keep the tracks passable through tornadoes, flash floods, and even snow.

“Everyone in engineering has been going above and beyond to keep this railroad going,” said Ed Boyle, vice president engineering. “It’s everyone pulling together.”

A challenge we’ll overcome

In the face of COVID-19, NS engineering has focused on taking care of and protecting our people and continuing to inspect, maintain, and improve the railroad to ensure we provide service safely to our customers, Boyle said.

“The message is ‘Take care of yourself, take care of your families, take care of your teammates, and take care of our railroad,’ and we’ll get through this,” Boyle said. “This is another challenge we’ll overcome, and we’re going to overcome it by working together, as we always do.”

Nowhere is this more important than on the program maintenance gangs. While they’re doing the same work as always in the field, NS has changed nearly everything else about how they operate to keep employees safe and healthy during COVID-19.

Keeping our people safe

The system gangs work four-day weeks on the road, and one of the biggest changes stemming from COVID-19 is in the housing and meals. Typically, some of the production gangs sleep in camp cars near their work site. Normally, at breakfast and dinner, prepared by contracted kitchen crews, they would serve themselves buffet style and eat at a communal table in a dining car.

To ensure social distancing during this time, NS is providing each employee with an individual hotel room. Breakfast and lunch are served in “to-go” bags delivered by a co-worker to the job site, while the company provides a per-diem for employees to pick up dinner from a local restaurant.

“There’s 9,000 meals prepared every week for the program maintenance employees, and to be able to provide the meals was a big challenge,” said Randy Pennington, process engineer program maintenance.

With anywhere from 50 to 80 members in the largest gangs, NS is helping some hotels stay in business during the pandemic, Pennington said. NS books rooms a month in advance in places where work is scheduled to ensure employees have a place to stay, he said.

“The hotels know we’re open for business and they stay open,” Pennington said. “They’re so appreciative. They’ve told me that without our people coming in, their employees would have been laid off.”

In another move, NS has altered seating in the vans and buses that employees ride in to job sites, making it easier to trace contacts if a co-worker tests positive for COVID-19.

“You ride in the same seat every day,” Pennington said. “If there is an exposure, we know who that person has been exposed to.”

Engineering has distributed masks and encourages employees to wear them when traveling to and from work sites. In addition, most meetings are held outdoors to give people more physical space, and hand sanitizer and cleaning stations are set up on site for use before and after meals. Beyond that, NS has rescheduled work in areas identified as COVID-19 “hotspots” by federal health officials rather than bring in a large system gang, Pennington said.

The department is committed to open and transparent communication with employees about the company’s response to COVID-19, including regular calls with the general chairmen of the unions representing track and rail workers.

“We’re committed to answering every question and concern our employees might have,” Pennington said.

Staying positive and focused on the work

In the field, employees remain focused on their work while doing their part to prevent the spread of COVID-19, said Puckett and other gang leaders.

“It can be a bit stressful, but the company has a great plan in place and we’re following the procedures they put out,” Puckett said. After working on a rail replacement project in Demopolis, Alabama, in mid-April, Puckett’s R-3 gang moved to Toledo, Ohio, to replace rail on NS’ Detroit Line, a key double-mainline route between Toledo and Detroit. “The biggest thing for me and my team is that we’re thankful the company is keeping us working,” he said. “As long as they’re working, they’re happy.”  

J.D. Julian, senior supervisor of T&S 24, a tie and surfacing production gang, expressed similar sentiments. His gang recently installed ties and resurfaced about 23 miles of the A Line near Bristol, Tennessee. The gang’s next stop is Bellevue, Ohio.

“Everybody knows what our part is, and there’s a sense of pride to it, because we do feel essential to keeping the country running,” Julian said of the gang’s work. “When this thing breaks, when everything gets back up and running, we want to be able to keep going full speed through it.”

On the S-2 surfacing gang, which is resurfacing the Reading and Harrisburg mainlines in Pennsylvania, employees are staying positive, said Roy Barr, supervisor surfacing.

“The company is doing pretty much everything it can possibly do to help us out and keep us safe, and everybody out here is trying to do their part,” Barr said. “Everybody keeps their mind on the job and what’s important out here and doing a great job.”

Bill Feltman, S-2 tamper operator, with cleaning supplies.

Keeping it clean

As an example of how employees are stepping up, Barr pointed to S-2 tamper operator Bill Feltman. At the end of each day, Feltman has volunteered to wipe down the van the 12-member gang rides in to and from their job site. The department has hired a company to clean and disinfectant the system gang vehicles, but Feltman wanted to help out.

“No. 1, I do it for my health and well-being, and No. 2, I do it for the guys in the van, too,” said Feltman, who lives in Greeneville, Tennessee. “I’m just a worker out there trying to do my job and keep things clean. I’m glad I’m still working, brother.”

Feltman, a 12-year NS veteran, said he takes the same precautions when he checks into his hotel room, wiping down all surfaces before he even unpacks. On the job, though, he focuses on work – and better days ahead.

“Once you get to your job, you just do your work safely and efficiently, and keep your head up,” he said. “This will pass by, you know?”

Despite COVID-19, that can-do spirit is alive and well in engineering, Boyle said.

“It’s a different world around us right now, but for the engineering team it is business as usual,” he said. “If there is a problem, our people will find a solution – that’s what we do.”

A member of the R-3 dual rail gang measures the gauge of rail during the gang’s work to install new rail on NS’ Detroit Line.