KCS, UP clear a path through Houston

Join effort addresses bottleneck in Texas terminal; improvements also coming for KCS border crossing at Laredo
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A southbound Kansas City Southern merchandise train with a distributed power unit on the tail end passes the joint customs inspection station in Laredo, Texas, as it crosses the International Railway Bridge over the Rio Grande in November 2017.
Bill Stephens

BOSTON — Kansas City Southern and Union Pacific have worked together to improve the handling of KCS cross-border trains moving through the congested Houston terminal on UP trackage rights.

At its worst, congestion in Houston could force KCS to stage two dozen trains as far away as Shreveport, La., and Kansas City, Mo., to the north and Laredo, Texas, and points in Mexico on the south, says Sameh Fahmy, the executive vice president of Precision Scheduled Railroading at KCS.

But after top operating officials from UP and KCS spent two and a half days at the joint dispatching center in Spring, Texas, in March, velocity is up and the number of parked trains is way down, Fahmy told an investor conference on Tuesday as part of a broader update on the railway’s shift to Precision Scheduled Railroading.

“Now we are seeing a huge improvement in Houston,” Fahmy says of the effort to identify and fix bottlenecks that slowed KCS through trains and made for inconsistent transit times.

At one point in March, velocity of KCS trains moving through Houston bottomed out at an average of 6 mph, Fahmy says. On Monday average velocity through Houston was 13.5 mph and only two trains were staged on KCS lines, he says.

KCS sometimes contributed to its own operating problems in Houston by not having crews on hand to take trains after they had been staged. The railway has taken steps to fix that problem, Fahmy says.

KCS also is working to smooth operations at Laredo, North America’s busiest international freight rail gateway.

By the end of May, KCS expects customs process improvements to eliminate the current six-hour directional windows that govern movements across the International Railway Bridge that spans the Rio Grande. American and Mexican customs officials will begin sharing x-ray images of trains for trains moving in both directions.

The new arrangement will end a significant source of delays: If a southbound train arrives a half-hour after the bridge flips to northbound operation, for example, it might incur a 5½-hour delay until customs officials are in place for southbound traffic, Fahmy explains.

At the north end of its system, KCS has worked with Canadian Pacific to improve merchandise traffic interchange at their joint Knoche Yard in Kansas City.

KCS builds a St. Paul, Minn., block for CP at Shreveport, while CP builds a Shreveport block at St. Paul, and the traffic runs through Kansas City. Both railways were able to abolish a yard job in Kansas City, Fahmy says, which has significantly reduced volumes in East Yard.

From a systemwide perspective, KCS operations are improving but remain what Fahmy calls a work in progress. Average train speeds are up, terminal dwell is down, and car miles per day is up.

KCS has consolidated southbound cross-border intermodal trains at its Sanchez Yard in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, including traffic interchanged with UP at Laredo. Train lengths are up 30%, to 8,500 feet, as train starts were reduced by nearly a third, Fahmy says.

The railway also slashed intermodal transit times in April as part of the changes. [See “Kansas City Southern adopts faster intermodal schedules to Mexico,” Trains News Wire, April 29, 2019.]

Fahmy spoke at the Bank of America Merrill Lynch 2019 Transportation Conference.

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