CSX Transportation executive cites examples of faster, more reliable service

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NEW YORK — CSX Transportation’s carload customers are benefitting from faster and more dependable service under CEO E. Hunter Harrison’s Precision Scheduled Railroading operating plan.

That’s the view of Michael Rutherford, vice president of industrial products at CSX, who spoke at the RailTrends 2017 conference on Friday, Dec. 1.

“The change has been transformative,” he says, citing performance measures of terminal dwell and average train speed that now exceed 2016 levels.

Not mentioned: CSX’s on-time performance remains stuck at 2016 levels, with about a third of trains arriving late. And in November, some customers reported deteriorating service. Harrison has called those complaints overblown and part of a campaign to spur re-regulation of the industry.

The most visible change at CSX has been the idling of eight of the railroad’s dozen hump yards, Rutherford says.

Less visible, but no less important, has been blocking cars closer to their originations and pushing them further across the network before they are flat-switched or classified at a hump yard.

“That’s how you get the speed and reliability,” Rutherford says.

“Hump yards make sense where they make sense,” he adds. “They just don’t make sense everywhere.”

Previously, CSX was over-reliant on its hump yards. Some cars were classified at hump yards three times on longer routings across the CSX system, adding two or more days to transit time, Rutherford says.

Now they are more likely to run through just one hump — or even no humps on shorter routings. CSX has cut average merchandise transit time from just under seven days when Harrison arrived at the railroad in March, to just under six days at the beginning of November.

Rutherford pointed to faster merchandise service between Buffalo and Syracuse, N.Y., cities separated by just 150 miles on the former New York Central Water Level Route.

Previously, CSX sent Syracuse-bound traffic from Buffalo all the way to Selkirk Yard, 150 miles east of Syracuse. At Selkirk, they were run over the hump, classified, and sent to Syracuse on a westbound train.

“We used to have to boomerang the car over Selkirk,” Rutherford says. “As a result, the actual route miles were three times the actual distance from Buffalo to Syracuse.”

Now CSX handles this traffic directly between Buffalo and Syracuse, with an eastbound train simply setting out a block of cars in Syracuse while on its way to Selkirk. This has created a faster, more reliable service that’s also lower cost, Rutherford says.

Shifting carload business out of unit trains, where possible, is another way CSX is working to streamline service.

Customers often preferred to have their cars move in unit trains because it was more reliable than regular merchandise service, Rutherford says. But unit trains build-in loading and unloading delays and add expense by requiring the use of more freight cars.

One metals customer’s unit train service required 10 days to load, move from origin to destination, and unload, Rutherford says. With smaller blocks of carloads moving in daily merchandise service, the moves have been reduced to two days.

The customer now uses 10 to 15 percent fewer cars to handle the same traffic, Rutherford says. And the extra cars are now being used in carrying new business in a different lane, he says.

“We’re excited about the product we are bringing to the marketplace,” Rutherford says.

CSX also is working to change customer behavior. The railroad wants shippers to order only the number of cars they need — not extras that clog up the system. And it wants shippers to load and unload cars more quickly as part of an effort to keep assets moving.

Rutherford spoke on Friday at the RailTrends 2017 conference sponsored by analyst Anthony Hatch of ABH Consulting and industry trade publication Progressive Railroading.
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