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Transforming to better serve customers

April 2020

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An NS train moves electric generator parts in South Carolina in 2017, an example of a high-wide move coordinated by the company’s Clearance Department. (File photo by Casey Thomason)

Embracing transformation, NS’ Clearance Department satisfies customers and advances strategic plan goals

Within Customer Operations, the Clearance Department is responsible for ensuring the safety and integrity of shipments with excessive or high and wide dimensions. Think BIG stuff – transformers for power companies, military tanks and bulldozers, rocket boosters, and more. As you might imagine, getting these products safely to destination requires a lot of teamwork and great attention to detail.

The clearance team partners with fellow NS departments including engineering, transportation, marketing, and the network operations center to get the job done. They also work closely with other railroads and military contractors to ensure that all shipments clear every structure along a designated route. In every case, the team meticulously reviews each mile of transit for any potential clearance issue.

“The clearance team members are very passionate about what they do, and it shows in the quality of their work,” said Gabrielle With, group manager. “They are committed to providing safe and efficient solutions for our customers each and every time.”

Collaboration is key

The department is certainly no stranger to clearing cars, but to help the company transform our business, the department is finding ways to improve through increased collaboration. Leading those transformation efforts are Erin McCracken, manager clearances, and Brannon Combs, assistant manager clearances.

“I’m extremely proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish,” McCracken said. “Every day our goal is to provide the best possible solutions for our customers, and one of the ways we’ve done that is by evaluating certain processes and, if necessary, working across departments to improve them.”

In one change, the department has partnered with the NOC to assume responsibility of assigning which trains are moving these shipments – a process that previously belonged solely to transportation. As the original source for restrictions placed on a shipment’s clearance file, the clearance team can communicate this information quickly and directly to NOC personnel while making the assignments, improving operational efficiencies. Once assignments have been made, the NOC may adjust the assigned train or change its route, using crucial information from clearance to assist in making the best decision.

Continuing to collaborate with the Transportation Department, clearance also developed and shared a training document that details how to handle the different types of moves they must perform, and who to contact for assistance if needed. Proactively sharing this information reduces the chances of encountering difficulties and delays during shipments. This has created a smoother, more consistent process for customers.

These kinds of process changes advance the company’s strategic plan goals to improve service, increase operating efficiencies, and drive growth, said Karol Lawrence, vice president customer operations. In particular, supporting our customers’ growth requires collaboration, efficiency, and consistency across NS departments.

“For Customer Operations, that means providing best-in-class service at every opportunity to reach our customers,” said Lawrence. “Quickly and safely responding to their requests for special services and managing these sensitive shipments through our system helps us grow this very critical business segment.”

Achieving ‘best of the best’ as viewed by the customer

In this respect, the Clearance Department’s transformation already has had an impact, earning praise directly from customers. BNSF Logistics recently recognized the department as a “clear choice for Best of the Best” in the categories of Rail Clearance Supplier and Rail Supplier of the year for 2019. NS partners with BNSF Logistics, a third-party logistics provider that works with shippers and transportation providers to ensure the efficient movement of shipments between origins and destinations.

“To be recognized by one of our customers in this way is evidence that the team is clearly executing their goal of best-in-class,” Lawrence added. “I’m grateful for their dedication, and very pleased with the positive results we’ve seen so far.”

Leveraging that success helps NS grow its customer base, Lawrence said, because improvements on the ground create new opportunities to market our company. One way we’re doing that is through a joint effort of our marketing and clearance departments. The clearance team created a resource called “Railroad Shipping 101” that Marketing employees share with customers to provide answers to frequently asked questions. The document is given to all new shippers and serves as an introductory one-stop shop to get them up to speed on how the clearance process works.

All of these initiatives – some seemingly small taken individually – provide clear examples of how increased collaboration is leading the way in our transformation, Lawrence added.  Every department and each team member has embraced their role in the process, and by working together, she said, NS’ future is bright.

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This NS train in 2018 transports two specialty cars for moving airplane parts, another high-wide move that occurs across our network. (File photo by Casey Thomason)