NS to reopen Debutts yard hump

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Norfolk Southern CEO James Squires
Norfolk Southern Corp.
BOSTON — Norfolk Southern will reopen the yard hump at DeButts Yard in Chattanooga, Tenn., as it works to ease congestion amid rising traffic volumes, CEO Jim Squires told an investor conference today.

Service has suffered on NS due to congestion on the southern portion of its system, with train speeds down and terminal dwell up significantly compared to last year. The key performance metrics are not rebounding, to the chagrin of both NS and its customers.

“We’re holding our own against strong volume growth,” Squires says. “Volume on our network is at a 12-year high.”

Part of the plan for restoring service levels involves reopening the hump at Chattanooga in what Squires called a “hybrid hump operation.”

The hump will classify traffic for local customers, Squires says. But the yard also will still serve as a block-swapping facility, in line with operating plan changes made after the hump was shut down in May 2017.

Terminal dwell is up at NS yards across the south, and dwell at Chattanooga has risen sharply since the hump was idled. It was 33.5 hours in the second quarter of 2017, but averaged 49.5 hours in April and last week was 62.7 hours, according to data reported to the Association of American Railroads.

NS retained the DeButts hump itself, Squires noted, but removed the retarders that slow cars on their descent into the classification bowl. The retarders are being re-installed.

It was not immediately clear when the hump would reopen.

“We are installing retarders as part of reopening the hump yard at Chattanooga,” NS spokeswoman Susan Terpay says, adding that she did not have a specific date that hump operations would resume.

NS was unable to provide information on what reactivation of the hump means for employment levels at the yard.

Retaining humps allows the railroad to have resiliency and operational flexibility when traffic rises, Squires says. A hump yard can absorb surges in traffic and meter the flow of volume by holding cars until they are ready to be released to customers, the CEO says.

But NS remains committed to building large blocks of cars and swapping them en route to minimize handling and speed shipments where possible, Squires says.

NS, which leased 90 locomotives in the first quarter, has added another 50 leased units to the fleet, Squires says. The additional units will help handle traffic growth and enable the railroad to convert 120 older six-axle DC units to like-new AC-traction locomotives as part of its ongoing DC-to-AC conversion program.

The railroad also has hired 400 new conductors to keep its train and engine crew headcount up.

“Customer service is not where we want it to be,” Squires says. “I want our customers to feel fully satisfied with the service they are getting from us, and right now many of them don’t.”

Despite the operational challenges, NS had the strongest volume growth among the Class I railroads for the year to date, Squires says, and demand for rail service is the strongest he’s ever seen.

Squires spoke at the Bank of America Merrill Lynch 2018 Transportation Conference.
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