Norfolk Southern begins blending unit-train traffic in shift to new operating plan

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NEW YORK — If you want to see the beginning of Norfolk Southern’s move toward an operating plan based on the principles of Precision Scheduled Railroading, look no further than train 23G.

A few times a week, the international intermodal train linking St. Louis; Louisville, Ky.; and Norfolk, Va.; pauses in Knoxville, Tenn., to pick up a cut of 20 or so coal loads bound for export form the pier at Lamberts Point, Va.

Coal riding the head end of an intermodal train?

“That worked just fine,” Alan Shaw, Norfolk Southern’s chief marketing officer, told the RailTrends 2018 conference last week.

The 23G typically has a long consist that moves with distributed power. But there’s room for a few coal cars, and both the intermodal boxes and the coal are headed for the port.

Catching a ride on an intermodal train means three things: The coal doesn’t sit in Knoxville until enough volume builds to run a unit train. The coal, and hoppers, move faster, reducing cycle time. And NS can drop train starts by shifting the bulk traffic into intermodal trains, which saves locomotives, fuel, and crews while opening up capacity on the main line.

It’s a classic example of moving traffic on the next available train, which is one of the key elements of Precision Scheduled Railroading and its focus on efficiency.

The coal is likely to continue moving to port this way for a while, but NS is considering adding some finished vehicle traffic into 23G that might kick the coal off.

NS has been redesigning its local and yard service through a process called clean-sheeting.

“What you do is you process engineer the delivery of the local service with customers,” Shaw says. “Figure out where those big blocks of cars are going to go, and then match that up to your train schedule across your network so the cars aren’t dwelling.”

Moving coal on 23G is one example of the process, he says.

NS is doing this methodically across the system, working with customers on operational changes. Executives have said the clean-sheeting process will continue into 2019 before major train-plan changes are made. They’ve promised to provide more details at an investor day scheduled for February.

The goal, Shaw says, is to provide more reliable and consistent service for customers while improving the railroad’s efficiency and financial performance.
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