CSX Extolls Benefits of Precision Scheduled Railroading Even as the Benefits of it Have Not Helped All Shippers

Even as CSX CEO E. Hunter Harrison was extolling the virtues of his precision scheduled railroading model in an earnings call with investors and analysts, the railroad’s management was acknowledging that it was having some service issues.

Harrison said there would be some inevitable pain and suffering before operations are running smoothly.

“I thought we had a hell of a quarter,” Harrison said in the wake of the railroad’s announcement earlier this week that during the second quarter of this year profits rose, the operating ratio improved, and traffic and revenue were on the rise.

CSX Chief Marketing Officer Fredrik Eliasson said that such important service metrics as terminal dwell time, average train speed, and on-time performance were better during the second quarter.

Eliasson conceded that service improvements have not been felt everywhere on the railroad. “There are certain places where we are not there yet,” he said while declining to provide customer satisfaction metrics.

A report published on the Trains magazine website said that not all shippers have felt those benefits.

“A large number of our members have said they are experiencing serious problems with their service from CSX,” Scott Jensen, a spokesman for the American Chemistry Council, told the magazine. “Some have even reported that it has caused their customers to temporarily shut down operations.”

Trains reported that the scope of the service problems appear to be growing and quoted an unnamed chemical shipper as saying that transit times have increased by 48 hours in several key lanes.

Jay Roman, president of Escalation Consultants, a Maryland-based firm that helps merchandise and bulk shippers negotiate contracts with railroads, told Trains that what the CSX metrics show is not what he has been hearing from shippers.

“There seems to be a disconnect between the data and what shippers are running into,” he said, noting that some shippers have experienced a reduction in local service and report having problems with car supply.

A survey of rail shippers conducted by Cowen & Company this month found that 24 percent of them ranked CSX service as “poor.”

Nonetheless, another unidentified shipper told Trains that there has been significant transit time improvement  and that his company’s car cycle times dropped by eight days over the span of a month.

“We are asking our customers to hang with us,” Ellison said. He said that he talks with shippers every day to assure them that conditions will improve.

CSX managers contend that no shippers have taken their business to Norfolk Southern or put it on the highway due to service issues.

“This service disruption has been way overplayed,” Harrison said. He said approximately 500 customers account for 90 percent of CSX’s traffic and two could make a case that they have experienced a “major disruption.”

In one of those cases, Harrison said service slid back to previous levels, which he attributed to a labor slowdown that he described as “pushback by some of the troops.”

CSX has stored nearly 900 locomotives and expects to put another 100 units in mothballs. The active car fleet has been reduced by 60,000 as CSX seeks to move the same level of tonnage on fewer trains.

Train length has averaged 6,500 feet and most trains now operate daily rather than five or six days a week as had been the case before Harrison arrived.

Chief Financial Officer Frank Lonegro said train length will continue to grow as CSX continues to move unit train traffic into its merchandise train network.

During the second quarter, terminal dwell time improved 2 percent to 24.4 hours, although dwell time is up significantly at some terminals since CSX ceased humping operations at seven yards.

CSX management is studying why dwell time has increased to 40 or 50 hours at some yards.

Train velocity improved 3 percent, to 21.7 mph and and fuel efficiency improved 5 percent as the railroad stored older, less-efficient locomotives.

In response to a question, Harrison said CSX will shift from a cost-cutting mode to a growth strategy if it continues to control its costs.

“A lot of this will happen in the post-Harrison era. If we do our job today in laying the foundation, there will be a lot of opportunity for growth,” he said.

Harrison described what CSX is doing as balancing cost and service. The railroad will need to bring in more revenue and not just cut costs.

The CSX head also said that just because the railroad is closing hump operations doesn’t mean it plans to sell the land they use.

“We’re not having a garage sale here,” Harrison said. If traffic continue to grow, that yard capacity may be needed again.

As for the short-term future, CSX management expressed a favorable third-quarter outlook for two-thirds of its traffic, including export coal, intermodal, agriculture and food, metals and equipment, and minerals.

CSX managers have a neutral outlook for fertilizers and forest products, which account for 8 percent of the railroad’s traffic.

The outlook is seen as unfavorable for 26 percent of traffic, including automotive, chemicals, and domestic coal.

CSX plans to discuss its long-term strategy and outlook during an investor conference scheduled for Oct. 29 and 30 in Palm Beach, Florida.

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