Norfolk Southern adds crews, reopens through route to ease congestion in South

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Norfolk Southern terminal dwell times
TRAINS; Norfolk Southern data
NORFOLK, Va. — Norfolk Southern is taking steps to unclog congested areas of its system in Alabama and Georgia, where a combination of traffic growth and bad weather have gummed up yards and single-track main lines.

For the year-to-date compared to the first quarter of 2017, average train speed on NS has declined 16 percent, to 19 mph, while terminal dwell has risen 23 percent, to 29.9 hours, largely due to problems centered on the Alabama and Georgia divisions.

“Our No. 1 priority is to return velocity to the railroad,” Chief Financial Officer Cynthia Earhart told an investors’ conference last week.

Norris Yard in Irondale, Ala., outside Birmingham, is plugged, forcing NS to hold trains outside the terminal for miles in each direction in sidings on the former Southern Railway main line.

NS has temporarily transferred 55 train and engine employees to Birmingham from around the system. Earhart says 44 have arrived in Birmingham and are already qualified and working, while the final 11 crew members will arrive within a week or so.

The new crews will primarily be working in the terminal, Earhart says, but some will be handling road trains.

“We need to get the terminal turning quicker,” she says. “There’s a lot of traffic that we’re trying to get through there.”

To ease main line congestion on the East End District between Birmingham and Atlanta, NS has returned through traffic to the Central of Georgia District. Through trains were shifted off the Birmingham-Columbus-Macon, Ga., routing in the middle of 2017, Earhart says.

Earhart could not provide a firm estimate on how long it would take NS to restore service to prior levels.

“This is weeks. It’s not days for sure,” she says.

Systemwide, NS has enough crews and locomotives to handle its current traffic levels, Earhart says.

Terminal dwell at Norris Yard was 53 hours last week, well above the 31-hour average in the first quarter last year. Across the system, five other yards were operating with average dwell times above 40 hours, including Chattanooga, Tenn.; Columbus, Ohio; Elkhart, Ind.; Macon; and Sheffield, Ala.

NS is far from alone in experiencing service problems.

Last year all of the Class I railroads reported year-over-year declines in Association of American Railroads’ performance measures as train speeds slowed and cars spent more time in yards, notes independent analyst Anthony Hatch of ABH Consulting.

Canadian National is adding yard and main line capacity, as well as crews and locomotives, to handle a surge in traffic that has bogged down its Western Corridor.

Union Pacific executives say they’re not satisfied with lower train speeds and higher terminal dwell.

And CSX Transportation’s service problems last year drew shipper complaints, regulatory scrutiny and forced some shippers to divert their freight to trucks and NS.

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