New Norfolk Southern operating plan to blend traffic and build longer trains

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Norfolk Southern CEO Jim Squires
Norfolk Southern
ATLANTA — Expect to see big changes on Norfolk Southern as the railroad launches its new Precision Scheduled Railroading operating plan, TOP21, over the summer.

The most visible differences will include longer trains with distributed power, the increased use of general purpose trains that combine different types of traffic, and locals that operate daily. Harder to see, but no less important, will be blocking changes that allow cars to bypass intermediate terminals.

“The goal of TOP21 is to make the entire network more efficient,” CEO Jim Squires said during the railroad’s investor day presentations on Monday.

Increased reliability also is a goal.

“Our new mantra is don’t promise anything you can’t deliver and then deliver what you promise,” Squires says.

Service will become more reliable, NS says, because the new operating plan is simpler to execute, day in and day out. It also will enable NS to bounce back more quickly from disruptions, such as the extreme cold and snowstorms that gripped its Northern Region last month, Chief Operating Officer Mike Wheeler says.

NS will blend different traffic types into general purpose trains. So that 60-mph intermodal traffic isn’t slowed when traffic is combined, NS has raised merchandise speeds to match on much of the railroad, up from 50 mph.

“We used to talk about as many as four separate networks. An intermodal network, an automotive network, carload, and unit train,” says John Friedmann, vice president of network planning and optimization. “And while it made certain intuitive sense to think of this this way, broken down along commodity lines, it really ignored the shared nature of our locomotive and our crew resources, as well as the limited nature of our line capacity.”

NS has begun combining traffic on some trains already.

Train 23G, an international intermodal train linking Louisville, Ky., and Norfolk, Va., pauses in Knoxville, Tenn., to pick up 15 or so loads of export coal also bound for the port.

Handling coal 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.

In Winston-Salem, N.C., northbound carload traffic is taking a faster, shorter route by hitching a ride on an automotive train. Carload traffic gathered at Winston-Salem used to first run south to the hump yard at Linwood, N.C., where it would be classified and put on a northbound merchandise train.

The new arrangement saves about 100 miles, reduces car handling, and frees up capacity at Linwood.

“This is the kind of different thinking that we are infusing into our operating plan,” Friedmann says.

NS also will run the same number of trains in each direction every day to keep crews and power in balance.

The new plan also reduces NS’s dependence on major terminals by pre-blocking cars at local terminals and then relying on block-swapping en route.

NS is increasing local service frequency to daily across much of the system.

“What this does is it helps keep the system in motion at all times,” Friedmann says.

NS will measure the effectiveness of its operating changes using five key metrics.

Goals for 2021 built around the metrics include increasing train and engine crew productivity 34 percent measured by gross ton-miles per worker; increasing average train weight by 12 percent; boosting locomotive productivity 30 percent on a ton-mile basis; and reducing the number of cars online by 12 percent.

NS also created a service delivery index, which compares the railroad’s performance to 2018. The goal of the opaque metric, which measures compliance with customer commitments, is a 40-percent improvement by 2021.
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