JB Hunt executive: PSR remains a 'mixed bag'

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BOSTON — Precision Scheduled Railroad remains a “mixed bag” for trucking giant and intermodal pioneer J.B. Hunt, according to Darren Field, the company’s executive vice president for intermodal.

“I’m a supporter of PSR as long as we can continue to communicate well with those railroads implementing that plan,” Field told attendees at the recent Cowan and Co. 12th Annual Transportation Conference.

“One of the biggest challenges for our customers over the past many years has been the inconsistent service, so if the implementation of PSR will mean a higher quality service, we’re certainly in support of it,” Field says.

Field has no problem with PSR’s goal of helping railroads use their assets better, since J.B. Hunt has the same objective in managing its assets. Yet, he is critical of “a kind of brute force of PSR” that does not communicate well with customers.

Field sees a role for J.B. Hunt in interpreting railroads’ intentions.

“Does that mean we need to adjust the way we operate together with the customer and the railroad? In some cases it does,” he says. “We’re all working to clear the terminals faster, we don’t want to have destination terminal dwell. We want to work within the railroads’ physical plant so that we can actually execute more business inside their same asset base.”

However, Field says it takes a lot of time to change the expectations of customers. “PSR’s tricky,” he says. “It’s come on very fast and it does require all of us to plan and communicate better.”

CSX Transportation’s introduction of PSR in 2017 was a disaster, according to Field.

“We were receiving phone calls [from customers] that said: ‘We’re cancelling a service tomorrow.’”

That year was during E. Hunter Harrison’s brief tenure at the helm of CSX with his introduction of PSR on that system. Following Harrison’s death in December 2017, other Class I railroads and certain short lines adopted PSR.

Field says there’s been improvement since 2017 and that CSX and Norfolk Southern are providing higher quality service than a year ago, but he’s unsure if it is due to improved operations or because of lower traffic volumes.

“So far they’ve had better service, but I think they have to sustain better service during a market of tightening truckload capacity and we really haven’t experienced that so far,” he says.

In July, Terry Matthew, J.B. Hunt president of intermodal services said BNSF Railway, a major Hunt carrier, provided service in the West “very well,” but had service setbacks during the first half of 2019 due to weather and flooding.

While expressing positive opinions regarding PSR, BNSF officials have been reluctant to publicly discuss the railroad’s operations.

Union Pacific handles so little J.B. Hunt business that Field says there are few remarks to be made on it.
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