Shippers skeptical of CSX service improvement claims

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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — The way CSX Transportation tells it, after a summer of disruptions the railroad’s service is improving and is back on par with 2016.

But many shippers say CSX service is still a mess. They cite erratic transit times, lost carloads, and misrouted shipments.

The National Grain and Feed Association says its members cannot get accurate information from the railroad’s customer service department.

“In some cases, our members have said they simply have given up, alleging that answers provided by CSXT personnel — if and when they can access them — often are opaque and vague,” Randall Gordon, president of the association, wrote in a letter to the Surface Transportation Board last week.

The agricultural shipper group represents more than 1,000 companies that operate more than 7,000 facilities. Some agricultural shippers reported improving service in early October, the group says. But many more currently report cars arriving four to seven days behind schedule as they ping-pong around the CSX system.

“In some cases, cars in CSXT manifest service also seemingly get a tour of [the] eastern half of the United States, after being combined in trains that traverse north, west, and east before beginning their journey to their intended destination in the Southeast — arriving late,” Gordon says.

Sometimes this is due to erroneous billing instructions that send cars to the wrong destinations. Other times it’s and due to yard congestion. Loaded cars, meanwhile, sometimes wait five to seven days to be picked up.

The grain and feed group did single out CSX for “stellar efforts to expedite delivery of an overdue CSXT train overnight in mid-September from Georgia to Okeechobee County, Fla.”

Due to CSX service failures, several mills in the area had run out of corn and other ingredients to manufacture feed for area dairy cattle.

The agricultural shippers’ accounts match those given to Trains News Wire by large merchandise shippers, chemical shippers, and shortline and regional railroads.

“It is still a big mess for us,” a merchandise shipper says. “I am talking with the STB almost daily.”

Another merchandise shipper studied round-trip transit times on eight of the origin-destination pairs his company uses on CSX, comparing September and October of this year to the eight-month period before CEO E. Hunter Harrison arrived in Jacksonville.

The result? Service is slower on five of the eight lanes. Two improved – including one where transit time was six days faster.

“It does not look like the CSX troubles are behind us,” says Scott Jensen, a spokesman for the American Chemistry Council, the trade organization for chemical manufacturers. “Things have not returned to normal.”

CSX CEO E. Hunter Harrison says the implementation of Precision Scheduled Railroading will reduce transit times and make service more consistent while reducing the railroad’s costs and boosting profitability.

The railroad’s terminal dwell and average train speed — key indicators of network fluidity — have improved in recent weeks.

“Service has improved dramatically from what you saw in the third quarter,” Chief Financial Officer Frank Lonegro told an investment conference in New York on Wednesday, citing better dwell and speed figures, along with the reduced number of cars currently on line.

CSX says it’s committed to providing agricultural customers with reliable service.

“Our team has worked throughout the year to be sure we are appropriately resourced during this year’s harvest season, meeting the demands of the marketplace and driving dwell and velocity performance to levels at or better than they were in 2016,” spokesman Christopher Smith says. “CSX continues to report improved transit times and train speeds, while car-handling, terminal fluidity and overall operations become more efficient as transitional issues have been resolved.”

The railroad is working with individual customers, he says, and has expanded its Grain Express program, which aims to ensure that unit trains are loaded and unloaded within 15 hours of arrival.

“This year CSX added 14 customer locations to our Express program, bringing the total number of locations from 62 to 76, a 23-percent increase,” Smith says. “CSX is committed to providing a superior service product to our customers, and we encourage any of them with questions to contact us directly with their concerns.”
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