Five railroads respond to joint STB-FRA letter

Class I CEOs offer reassurances — some broad, some specific — that their companies are prepared for upswing in volume
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BNSF_Storage_Lassen
Stored BNSF locomotives stretch into the distance at Minneapolis, Minn., on Aug. 4, 2020. Class I railroads tell the Surface Transportation Board and Federal Railroad Administration they have sufficient crews and locomotives to handle an upswing in traffic.
TRAINS: David Lassen

Five Class I railroads have now responded to last month’s joint letter from the Surface Transportation Board and Federal Railroad Adminstration, mostly in general terms assuring the two agencies that they are prepared for an upsurge in traffic.

The letter to CEOs at the seven Class I roads asked railroads to ensure they have sufficient people and equipment to handle rising volume as the economy recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic [see “In rare joint letter, FRA, STB warn railroads to be ready for rebound in traffic,” Trains News Wire, Aug. 24, 2020].

The most detailed responses among the letters posted on the STB’s website are in those signed by Keith Creel, CEO at Canadian Pacific, and Jim Squires, his counterpart at Norfolk Southern.

The Creel letter notes that the railroad adjusted benefits for union members during the pandemic “and in exchange received commitment from our train and engine employees to return sooner than the standard 15-day call back,” shortening that to just 72 hours in many cases. So far, the railroad has recalled 80 of its 375 furloughed crew member, “nearly all of whom have accepted and returned to the railroad on a timely basis.” Another 121 or more are expected to be recalled by the end of the year.

Creel also notes 991 of the CP fleet of approximately 1,300 locomotives are in service, and another 19 in storage “are ready for immediate return to service.” And he says CP’s service is strong, as based on 96% on-time performance for over-the-road trains so far in the third quarter of 2020.

In the letter from Squires, Norfolk Southern reports it has returned 550 train and engine employees to work, with a net increase of 217 such employees and a furlough return rate of 67%. “Our future success in recalling crews could be affected by a significant resurgence of the virus or because of other factors beyond our control,” the letter cautions. It also says that the railroad began a training class for new hires in July and will begin another.

The railroad says it does not anticipate needing to draw from the 270 locomotives and 15,500 railcars in storage to meet demand, but they are available if needed. It also reports it has “engaged in an aggressive campaign to meet with customers” to prepare to meet their needs.

Other railroads, while less specific on crew and locomotive information, also cited statistics to show they are operating well. CEO Jim Foote of CSX wrote that velocity and dwell “remain consistent with our historically strong 2019 levels, and our broader array of service metrics have been returning to pre-pandemic levels.” His railroad has brought back about 80% of its furloughed employees, and the percentage of locomotives in storage has dropped from 30% at the peak of the pandemic to 9%. BNSF CEO Carl Ice wrote that his railroad’s velocity is up 17% so far this year compared to 2019 and “local customer service performance at 90.9% year to date, up 4.1% versus last year.”

The briefest letter came from Kansas City Southern CEO Patrick Ottensmeyer, who concludes a three-paragraph message by saying, “KCS intends to closely monitor our crew, equipment, and service needs of its shippers, and stands ready to work with your respective agencies to resolve adverse service issues.”

Canadian National and Union Pacific have not filed responses with the STB.

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