Norfolk Southern PSR-based merchandise network changes begin Friday

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NORFOLK, Va. — Norfolk Southern will begin rolling out its new TOP21 operating plan on Friday.

“The first phase of train plan changes in TOP21 predominantly affects the merchandise service,” NS says in a service alert. “While these changes are not expected to result in service disruptions, NS will have an internal command center in place for implementation to ensure a smooth roll out and timely communication of any issues.”

The TOP21 plan, based on the principles of Precision Scheduled Railroading, will ultimately affect Norfolk Southern’s merchandise, automotive, and bulk networks. Its intermodal network will get a makeover next year.

“When you really cut through it all, the essence of TOP21 is run longer, heavier trains – and fewer of them,” CEO Jim Squires told an investor conference earlier this month. “So we will see train starts come down and train lengths and weights increase.”

Also part of the plan: Greater use of distributed power, which will help move longer trains more efficiently.

NS told customers that they may see a change in estimated arrival times for freight cars that were waybilled prior to June 30. Cars waybilled after June 30 will receive a “TOP21 trip plan,” NS says, with no changes anticipated to their ETAs.

TOP21 will bring traffic increases to some areas of the NS system, including Harrisburg, Pa.; Elkhart, Ind.; and Chattanooga, Tenn. In some locations, NS turned on the new plan early.

“We anticipate heavier traffic volumes into and out of Harrisburg. Seeing that coming, believing that we had the capability to handle those increased traffic flows already, we went ahead and implemented that node in the TOP21 plan,” Squires said earlier this month. “So we’ve been sort of easing our way into it at certain locations. The big trigger will be in July.”

The TOP21 plan builds on the “clean sheeting” work NS did over the past 18 months to redesign terminal and local operations across the system.

Clean sheeting and TOP21 de-emphasize the use of major terminals in favor of pre-blocking at customer locations and local service yards. The new operating plan relies more on trains block-swapping en route to minimize intermediate switching, which can reduce transit time and improve service reliability.
Clean-sheeting has dramatically reduced terminal dwell on NS. Last week, dwell averaged 17.8 hours, down 38% from the second-quarter average from 2018, according to Association of American Railroads data.

Improving terminal operations also helped boost average train speeds by reducing congestion in and around yards. Last week average velocity was 22.1 mph, up 20% from the average speed in the second quarter of 2018.

NS expects the TOP21 plan to contribute to additional improvements in average velocity since traffic will be moving on fewer trains, which reduces meets between terminals.

The railroad announced details about its PSR-based operating plan during an investor day in February, including changes to local service and its locomotive fleetamid a drive toward a 60% operating ratio. 

NEWSWIRETrains News Wire

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