NS train crew delivers essential service in a time of need
What do you get when you mix dedication, vital chemical products, and Norfolk Southern trains during a pandemic? In this case, it’s the T39 local switcher train, operated by a rail-tough NS train and engine crew. The three-member team is working hard to serve a customer that makes products people are using to help stay safe and healthy during COVID-19.
This seasoned crew consists of Marty Grice, a locomotive engineer with 29 years of service, conductor Zach Lett, and brakeman Leroy Weatherspoon, both 10-year railroad veterans.
Five days a week, they provide service on the T39 to Olin Corporation’s chemical plant in rural Charleston, Tennessee, about 45 miles northeast of NS’ Debutts Yard in Chattanooga. Among other products, this Olin plant produces bleach used to manufacture cleaning and disinfectant supplies that are in high demand.
Essential work for an essential business
The crew operates the T39 between the plant, an NS depot in Charleston, and a small NS facility known as the New Yard. The crew moves cars of salt and chemicals from the New Yard to the plant for use in its production processes; it transports tank cars loaded with Olin’s bleach and other products to the NS depot.
From there, another NS train and engine crew moves the cars to NS’ Chattanooga yard, where they are humped, classified, and connected to trains that deliver Olin’s products to manufacturing companies across NS’ network.
Since the COVID-19 outbreak, carload volumes at the Olin plant have increased by double-digits. According to Josh Lafferty, division superintendent on the Piedmont Division, the crew’s efforts are an “ideal example of essential work to support an essential business.”
Olin gives NS high marks
When the pandemic began in the U.S., Olin received numerous inquiries from customers and municipalities expressing concerns about the security and distribution of its water treatment and disinfection products, chlorine and bleach, said Frank Chirumbole, Olin’s vice president integrated supply chain.
“The Olin Charleston plant is a critical supplier of these products and primarily ships to customers via rail,” Chirumbole said. “I was pleased to tell these organizations that Olin had not experienced and did not anticipate any interruptions in delivery. Norfolk Southern stayed in close contact with us, providing reassurance that they stood ready to continue to meet demand.
The company also gave a shout out to the T39 crew.
“Olin’s continued production has been critical during the last few months,” said Jeffrey Kilts, an Olin lead logistics analyst. “The crew serving Olin’s Charleston facility has been instrumental in ensuring continued operations and consistent supply to our customers. Their frequent communication, reliable service, attention to safety, and willingness to assist in abnormal situations has helped ensure Olin’s and our customers’ success during this difficult time.”
Stepping up in difficult times
For their part, the crew takes a quiet pride in delivering quality service while doing a job they love. Grice, whose grandfathers were railroaders and whose father was a railroad buff, said: “We’re fortunate to be doing what we’re doing. It feels great to still have a job, to be in demand like we are, and to be able to do anything we can to help.”
The train crew’s collaborative efforts with Olin to serve the plant demonstrates our commitment to deliver best-in-class service, whatever the challenges, said Mike Mitchell, senior road manager, the crew’s supervisor.
“It's tough right now being a railroader, but these employees have really stepped up to the plate,” Mitchell said. “They're stand-up guys who care about their customers by getting the work done in a safe and efficient manner.”
They operate the T39 job at the Olin plant job Monday through Friday, working a shift that starts at 3 p.m. and sometimes runs past midnight. Depending on the number of cars they need to switch, they head to the New Yard to build an inbound train for the plant or go directly to Olin to pull outbound cars, making room for more plant deliveries.
At Olin, they shove and pull cars in and out of eight yard tracks. The more efficient they are at completing the switching and moving cars into place, the more efficient the Olin plant can operate. They all have specialized training to handle the chemicals they move to and from the plant.
Working together to get the job done
Lett says he speaks daily with Mitchell, noting that the senior road manager makes himself available to them any time – day or night – for whatever they may need. The crew also depends on each other – to stay healthy, to get the job done, and get home to their loved ones.
”You depend on the crew you’re working with every night,” Weatherspoon said, “that you can trust in them to be there and do the work safely.”
Lett said the camaraderie helps them get through challenging days. “It's fun working with them,” he said. “We give each other a hard time and have fun.”
From the customer to the crew to leadership and to the business – everyone involved echoes the sentiment that Norfolk Southern and Olin are not only serving the American people, they also have a great working relationship.
When it comes down to it, Mitchell said, “The customer couldn't do it without us and we couldn't do it without the customer.”
NS rail connects Olin to a global supply chain
Norfolk Southern serves as a key link in Olin Corporation’s supply chain, providing rail service to three Olin plants in the southeast – all of them producing chemicals in high demand during COVID-19.
In addition to the plant in Charleston, Tennessee, NS also serves Olin facilities in McIntosh, Alabama, and Augusta, Georgia. All of these facilities are shippers or consumers of chlor-alkali products such as chlorine, caustic soda, hydrochloric acid, and bleach. These chemical products are used for such essential things as treating drinking water, producing paper products, and making cleaning products, the current star on store shelves today.
Olin’s Tennessee plant is the only that produces potassium hydroxide, aka KOH, which is used in the production of food, fertilizers, herbicides, soaps, detergents, and airplane de-icing fluids.
With a global footprint, Olin generates year-round traffic volumes for NS and has been a valued customer dating to the mid-1900s and NS predecessor railroads.