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Weathering arctic blasts and springtime floods

May 2019

This photo, taken in April by NS track maintenance personnel, shows flooding in downtown Hannibal, Missouri, that turned this highway-rail grade crossing on NS’ mainline into a river way. Persistent flooding has continued to disrupt train service this spring on an NS mainline that runs through Hannibal.

NS’ new strategic plan points way to network resiliency

In the first five months of 2019, Norfolk Southern has been slammed by a record-cold polar vortex and Missouri floodwaters that swamped a key mainline route.

In past years – despite the hard work and dedication of operations employees – extreme weather events like this snarled the NS rail network with congestion that could linger for weeks, if not months.

So far this year, that hasn’t happened. While the frigid arctic blast slowed trains and caused unavoidable service delays, NS operations bounced back quickly. To navigate around the flooded line, NS has rerouted trains on an alternate route, which added delivery time but hasn’t jammed up the network.

What’s different this year? NS operation leaders credit the railroad’s new strategic plan. The plan, built on NS’ brand of precision scheduled railroading, is reducing car dwell in terminals and increasing train velocity on line of road.

The result: a more resilient network able to recover more quickly from shocks to the system.

Clean Sheeting and the capacity dividend

The company’s PSR-based Clean Sheeting initiative to streamline yard operations is a key factor, said Greg Comstock, general manager Network Operations Center. Clean Sheeting terminals around Chicago, Elkhart, and other locations across the Northern Region created capacity to stage and then move trains when conditions allowed during the nearly weeklong polar vortex.

This “capacity dividend” translated into network resiliency, Comstock said.

“That was the coldest weather we’ve ever seen, and there were certain things we couldn’t do, so we ran shorter trains and we worked through it – and we had the capacity to do so,” Comstock said. “It’s all about the fluidity of the operation. We were able to keep fluidity with our local customers and with customers who could get into facilities with their trailers and freight. We were about the only Class I railroad that was still functioning.”  

Similarly, improved network fluidity gave NS the capacity to reroute traffic around massive river flooding in Hannibal, Missouri, and continue serving customers.

“We’ve been able to be very flexible and still move our freight,” Comstock said.

In late March through mid-April, and continuing again in May, floodwaters closed part of the NS mainline that carries customers’ freight between Decatur, Illinois, and Kansas City, Missouri. NS has rerouted 10 to 15 trains daily on a triangular route from Decatur south to St. Louis, west to Moberly, and then on to Kansas City, said Kraig Barner, Illinois Division superintendent.

NS trains on this corridor move a mix of freight that includes intermodal, auto parts, building materials, and agricultural products. The detour makes for a longer trip, which increases delivery time, but the traffic shift has not created congestion or other delays in network operations, Barner said.

A big part of the reason: Clean Sheeting plans put in place at the Decatur and St. Louis terminals essentially have doubled capacity in both yards, Barner said.

“The biggest thing is just the efficiencies that Clean Sheeting is creating,” Barner said. “Instead of cars dwelling in the yards and clogging the yard tracks, we’re moving the traffic out so much faster that it is freeing up capacity. It gives us the ability to operate as normal, even with an unplanned mainline outage.”

Collaborating with customers

A key to capacity gains is NS’ collaboration with customers to increase the frequency of local service, Comstock said. NS now provides six and seven-day service to about 80 percent of its customers, he said.

“That helps make capacity in our terminals because the cars aren’t sitting there – they’re going to our customers,” Comstock said.

NS expects to achieve additional gains in network fluidity and capacity later this year when it fully implements TOP21, NS’ new Thoroughbred Operating Plan, Comstock said.

Like Clean Sheeting, TOP21 is based on precision scheduled railroading. The PSR principles that underpin TOP21 are: run fewer, heavier trains; reduce the circuity of train routes; reduce dependence on major terminals; and fully integrate yard and road operations. 

Good message for investors

In early March, CEO Jim Squires fielded questions about PSR and NS’ improved operating performance at a JP Morgan financial conference. During a Q&A, Squires cited Clean Sheeting and the consolidation of train dispatching and other operations support groups into the new unified Network Operations Center in Atlanta as two main factors driving improvement.

“We have a better performing and more resilient network today,” Squires said. “We’re feeling good about the state of the network right now, particularly compared to last year. We held our own in February, and the metrics are looking good.”