CSX is slowing down

Shippers and regulators target eastern railroad's service problems
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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — CSX Transportation is facing increasing pressure from shippers and federal regulators as its operations deteriorate, particularly at major terminals in the south.

The Rail Customer Coalition, an umbrella group for nearly four dozen trade associations representing manufacturing, agricultural, energy, and retail industries, on Monday urged Congress to prod the Surface Transportation Board to launch an investigation of service problems at CSX.

“With service disruptions continuing to mount and no solution in sight, our members need decisive action from Congress and the STB,” the Rail Customer Coalition wrote to the leaders of the Senate commerce committee and House transportation committee.

The coalition also asked Congress to push the STB — an independent agency — to move forward on new rules for reciprocal switching, a long-sought regulatory remedy that would allow a second railroad access to certain captive shippers.

It’s not clear how reciprocal switching would help shippers amid CSX’s service troubles. Reciprocal switching would further complicate operations and cause or increase congestion, the Association of American Railroads has said.

The shipper organization said that problems at CSX are beginning to ripple across the North American rail network.

“This has put rail-dependent business operations throughout the U.S. at risk of shutting down, caused severe bottlenecks in the delivery of key goods and services, and has put the health of our nation’s economy in jeopardy,” the coalition wrote.

Neither Union Pacific nor BNSF Railway — which routinely warn shippers of service problems — have posted customer advisories regarding interchange with CSX. BNSF had no comment; a UP spokesman did not respond to an email seeking comment.

On Monday, the STB commissioners wrote to CSX CEO E. Hunter Harrison regarding their “continued concerns over the widespread degradation of rail service” across the CSX system. The board on July 27 had initiated weekly conference calls with CSX executives.

Now the board has ordered CSX to provide detailed operational figures weekly so it can better assess the magnitude of service problems and the railroad’s attempts to fix them. Specifically, CSX must provide the board with its car connection and on-time performance, car order fulfillment, interchange fluidity, and local service measurements, among other metrics.

The board also ordered CSX to provide, by Aug. 24, a detailed schedule for implementation of its new operating plan for the rest of the year.

“This will get interesting and could get worse — or at least a lot more public — before it gets better,” says analyst Anthony B. Hatch of ABH Consulting. CSX’s service is nowhere near the levels of the 1990s crisis when Union Pacific melted down after acquiring Southern Pacific, he says.

CSX initially made significant operational improvements after Harrison began rolling out precision scheduled railroading in March. On-time performance soared and transit times declined as trains bypassed terminals and cars were handled fewer times en route.

But operational problems began to surface in July, a few weeks after CSX idled the humps at the last of seven hump yards it has transitioned to flat-switching facilities. Simultaneously, the railroad made corresponding widespread changes to its operating plan, including train schedules and blocking patterns.

CSX’s average dwell figures for 15 terminals reported to the Association of American Railroads currently show eight yards with dwell times greater than 40 hours. Railroad operations officials say that a terminal with average dwell above 30 to 34 hours is likely to be congested, with cars missing their connections and taking hits to their scheduled transit times.

CSX terminals showing major delays — with dwell time significantly above last year — include Corbin, Ky.; Hamlet, N.C.; Indianapolis; Montgomery, Ala.; Nashville; Russell, Ky.; and Willard, Ohio.

The hardest-hit terminals, based on AAR figures released on Wednesday afternoon, were Indianapolis, Nashville, and Montgomery. Dwell at Indianapolis rose to 58.5 hours, continuing a trend. Although the figures improved considerably this week for Nashville and Montgomery, both appeared to be plugged, as they have been for several weeks. Dwell time was 53.5 hours at Nashville and 52.6 hours in Montgomery.

It’s not just merchandise customers who are affected. Intermodal customers are experiencing major delays at terminals across the south.

On Monday, intermodal shipper J.B. Hunt issued an updated service advisory warning customers of delays of 72 hours or more at seven terminals. Among them: Jacksonville and Tampa, Fla.; Atlanta and Savannah, Ga.; Charlotte, N.C.; and Memphis.

The delays had, in most cases, worsened since J.B. Hunt’s prior service advisory, posted on July 31.

CSX operations this month were not helped by a major derailment in Hyndman, Pa., which shut down the former Baltimore & Ohio main line over the Sand Patch grade for nearly a week and prompted lengthy detours.

Average train speed, which sank to 18.4 mph for the week ending Aug. 11, is the lowest it’s been in the past year and is the fourth straight week below 20 mph. In the third quarter last year, CSX’s average train speed was nearly 12 percent higher, at 20.8 mph.

Last week, CSX’s traffic was up 2.1 percent thanks to a 9.5 percent gain in intermodal traffic. Carload traffic was down 3.4 percent.

At rival Norfolk Southern, overall traffic was up 4.3 percent for the week, including a 3.8-percent gain in intermodal and a 0.28-percent decline in carload traffic.

A CSX spokesman did not respond to several requests for comment.

NEWSWIRETrains News Wire

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