News Analysis: Precision Scheduled Railroading dominates conversation at NRC Conference

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Retiring BNSF Railway Executive Chairman Matt Rose
David Lassen
MARCO ISLAND, Fla. – It is becoming more clear that Precision Scheduled Railroading is the subject that devours all other rail topics in its path.

Anyone who doubts that need only have spent four days at the National Railroad Construction and Maintenance Association Conference at the J.W. Marriott Resort on Marco Island, when the concept championed by the late Hunter Harrison surfaced at almost every turn. And this was a gathering of a group, largely project engineers and contractors, that arguably is nowhere near the top of the list of constituencies directly affected by the operating philosophy.

The opening Sunday afternoon panel on positive train control – which not that long ago would have been been railroading’s hot-button topic – took a substantial detour from PTC into PSR. Retiring BNSF Railway Executive Chairman Matt Rose addressed the subject substantially in his Monday morning “fireside chat.” That day’s session with lobbyists for the Association of American Railroads and three Class I railroad systems included a segment on explaining and otherwise dealing with Precision Scheduled Railroading on Capitol Hill. Railroads that have fully implemented PSR or adopted some of its principles mentioned it during their capital spending presentations. Even railroads not associated with PSR name-checked the concept. (“We feel like we’ve been doing scheduled railroading for 100 years,” said Scott Bannwart, assistant vice president, engineering, at Florida East Coast Railway.)

And, of course, there was an entire panel discussion addressed to the topic – featuring three current or former Canadian National executives under Harrison, as well as Howard Green, author of the Harrison biography “Railroader.” (Wisely, Green had a table set up to sell copies in the lobby.)

All this focus seems to illustrate two things: the term Precision Scheduled Railroading is now recognized far beyond the Class I railroad executive suites and Wall Street offices where it has been embraced – and that the actual concepts behind the name still aren’t widely understood. But people in and around railroading are clearly hungry for understanding.

The search for meaning is somewhat understandable, because the “five foundations” of PSR — as outlined in a 2016 white paper issued by Canadian Pacific when Harrison was the railroad’s CEO — are strikingly vague:
  • Improving customer service
  • Controlling costs
  • Optimizing asset utilization
  • Operating safely
  • Valuing and developing employees
It’s hard to imagine any railroad would not claim to embrace such principles – just as there are groups, notably among labor and shippers, that would argue that Precision Scheduled Railroading falls far short of meeting those goals.

And so the people at the NRC conference sought details: Is Precision Scheduled Railroading just doing away with hump yards and running long trains, or is it more? PSR proponents point to other aspects – balanced train movements, with trains departing at the same time every day – but they also return repeatedly to “sweating the assets” – learning to move the same amount of traffic with fewer engines and crews.

“The concept that we’ve gotten from PSR is that you want to take waste out of the system,” said Carl Walker, CSX Transportation’s chief engineer, communcations and signal, during that Sunday PTC panel. “If you have cars that are not being used, get them off the tracks. Store ‘em somewhere. Locomotives, put them in storage. Use what you absolutely have to use to take waste out of, days out of, taking a car from one place to another.”

Or, as CN Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Mike Cory said during the Precision Scheduled Railroading panel, referring to requests from then-Vice President of Engineering Dave Ferryman, also on the panel, “It’s getting him what he needs – but less than he thinks he needs.”

That panel, by the way, told a series of engaging anecdotes about life under Harrison, many of which made him sound, to an outsider, not particularly appealing – the terms demanding, short-tempered, and vindictive come to mind. And yet the three men who worked under Harrison at CN all sang the late CEO’s praises for his vision, his ability to understand problems and their solutions like no one else, and his willingness to do the unpopular thing to create a more efficient railroad. It seems that to truly understand Harrison, you probably needed to know him.

Understanding the man, however, is not necessary to understand the principles he left behind. But even full understanding of what constitutes Precision Scheduled Railroading does not necessarily mean agreeing with it. Just ask Rose, who said he sees “zero” improvement from PSR railroads in their interchange service with BNSF. Or ask the shippers whose unhappiness with CSX at the beginning of Harrison’s tenure there led to pointed questions for the CEO at a Surface Transportation Board hearing.

On that panel about PTC, Jim LeVere of BNSF, a railroad that has not yet embraced PSR, made the point that many of the principles of Precision Scheduled Railroading make good business sense.

“If you talk cost control, reliability, and running a schedule, per se – when you’re going to pick a car up and deliver it … and being able to tell your customers where their shipment is and when it’s going to be delivered, those are all important pieces,” said LeVere, BNSF’s vice president, engineering-signal, telecommunications and network control systems.

But LaVere also noted that what is good for a railroad in Precision Scheduled Railroading is not necessarily good for a customer.

“We want to bring customers on,” he said. “So we say yes to a lot of things, a lot of customers that we want your business, and we’ll figure out a way to work it with our network. But we don’t necessarily say this is when we’re going to pick something up because it fits our schedule the best. We try and fit it according to a more customer-centric orientation.”

And so, if the NRC Conference is any indication, the discussion of Precision Scheduled Railroading seems likely to continue to dominate conversations about railroading – not only what it is, but the degree to which it has merit.

NEWSWIRETrains News Wire

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