Union Pacific sets its aim on improving operations in the Gulf Coast region

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Chart shows how UP plans to focus efforts on the Gulf Coast region.
OMAHA, Neb. — Union Pacific’s performance metrics are quickly approaching normal levels as the railroad works to handle Gulf Coast traffic growth and improve operations over the long-term systemwide.

“We are well on the way to serving customers in the manner that they expect from us,” CEO Lance Fritz told investors and analysts at the railroad’s Investor Day last week.

Chief Operating Officer Cam Scott says UP has made significant progress whittling down the number of freight cars online, reducing terminal dwell, and speeding up the network. “Our system velocity and terminal dwell are approaching levels closer to where we were at this time last year,” Scott says.

UP began to slow down last summer for a variety of unrelated reasons: the impact of Hurricane Harvey and historic flooding that followed; growth in the Southern Region that led to near-record carload volumes on the Gulf Coast; crew shortages in some areas; operational changes; and a glitchy rollout of Positive Train Control.

The number of cars online is down 10 percent, or 23,000 cars, from high water mark of March. Those 23,000 freight cars represent 300 miles of track capacity, Scott says.

UP also seems to be putting PTC problems behind it: The number of unintended stop indications per 1,000 train-miles fell to 0.34 in April from a high of 1.22 in February 2017. “In no way are we accepting that as good,” Scott says.

The unintended stops generally resulted from communication gaps or bugs in software and caused trains to brake or stop even though no operating rules violation had occurred.

Ultimately, PTC will help UP increase capacity of existing track by permitting trains to run closer together and will help improve service by improving meets and passes, executives say.

New Gulf Coast Capacity

For the next three years UP will concentrate capacity expansion projects in Texas and Louisiana, where petrochemical, plastics, and energy-related traffic is growing.

The centerpiece will be Brazos Yard, the $550 million classification yard under construction near Hearne, Texas, at the junction of seven UP main lines. The routes radiate to Houston, Dallas/Fort Worth, and Austin, as well as to gateways to Mexico and major interchanges such as Memphis, St. Louis, and Chicago.

“Brazos will be our lowest-cost yard and by a substantial amount,” says Tom Haley, vice president of network planning and operations.

Other projects under way or planned on the Gulf Coast include new storage-in-transit yards for petrochemical and plastics producers in Livonia, La., and Angleton Yard, south of Houston, along with additional sidings, double-track, and power switches on lines in Texas and within the Houston terminal area.

Operational Improvements

UP continues to refine its operating plan with an eye toward efficiency and improving reliability.

It’s in the early stages of what it calls Blend and Balance – which aims to shift some unit-train shipments into the manifest network to build train density and enable daily departures that can balance train movements. This, in turn, increases train lengths and limits the number of unproductive locomotive and crew repositioning moves.

Last year UP hit record train lengths for every category, from grain and auto to intermodal and merchandise, Haley says. And 70 percent of auto traffic now moves in the merchandise network, not in unit trains.

UP runs 14,000- to 15,000-foot trains in double-track territory and is working on ways to increase the length of some trains in single-track territory where siding capacity is an issue. “There’s a lot of runway ahead of us here on train length,” Scott says.

Also in the works: Reducing unplanned delays like locomotive and freight car failures and track and signal issues. When one train is forced to stop, delays typically cascade to include others operating nearby.

Excluding PTC glitches, UP’s “daily variability events” fell to 392 this year from 467 in 2012. But Haley says “392 is still one event every four minutes occurring somewhere in our network.”

To reduce the number, UP is combining data analytics with problem-solving tools, Haley says. The 32,000-mile railroad has been broken down into five-mile sections, allowing officials to analyze data and pinpoint potential trouble spots.

So far the effort has produced results as varied as reducing washouts to cutting in half the number of heavy trains that stall on a grade in Texas, with part of the problem traced to locomotive inspections 900 miles away in Nebraska.

UP won’t be in the market for new locomotives after it receives the final 60 units of a multi-year order this year. But it will maintain a 300-unit surge fleet and fund upgrades and modernizations of its road units in the coming years, officials say.
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