NS Focusing on Longer Trains

You can expect to see even longer trains on Norfolk Southern in the coming months.

NS Chief Operating Officer Cindy Sanborn said this week during an investor’s call to discuss 2020 fourth quarter financial results that NS is seeking to lengthen its trains.

The objective is to reduce its operating ratio, which NS said lags other Class 1 railroads.

The operating ratio reflects the percentage of revenue that is used to cover expenses.

Over the past two years NS has sought to cut operating costs by shifting to the precision scheduled railroading operating model.

It has ceased humping cars at six classification yards and sought to reduce its fuel, labor and locomotive-related costs.

Sanborn said NS is seeing more business but at the same time reducing resources and improving productivity.

“Our push for efficiency led to record train weight and record train length in the [fourth] quarter,” she said.

“These larger trains, combined with our strategy of better matching train size and locomotive horsepower, drove us to record fuel efficiency and enabled us to get the job done with a smaller workforce and a record low count of locomotives.”

NS is now moving freight with 16 percent fewer locomotives and 15 percent fewer crews.

The length and weight of its trains has grown by 10 percent.

That resulted in an 8 percent cut in operating expenses during the fourth quarter.

“Traffic coming back is both our challenge and an opportunity,” Sanborn said. “We can and will add resources to meet customer needs, but first we must explore every option to fully utilize our existing crews and locomotives.”

That will mean that ncreased traffic will be accommodated on existing trains.

It doing this, NS plans to re calibrate operations by re-balancing traffic among existing trains. Extra section trains will operate only when necessary.

Sanborn said doing this will involve seeking to optimally match train size with the pulling power of locomotives while minimizing the number of crew starts.

This is expected to result in an increase in mixing different types of traffic in the same train. It will be done by blocking traffic for the most distant points on the NS network.

“We will continue to look at yards and see how we can speed up cars,” Sanborn said. “The real mission around terminal capability and terminal footprint is around keeping cars moving, or not pushing cars into terminals, moving cars faster. So I think there’s still quite a bit of room there.”

NS expects its workforce size to hold steady or only decline slightly this year.

However, it will recall and retrain furloughed employees for work in other crafts rather than hire new employees.

NS did suffer some increase in terminal dwell times and lower trains speeds as volume picked up around the late 2020 holiday season.

Service also took a hit at time due to high numbers of workers having to quarantine due to the pandemic.

During the fourth quarter, cars spent 16 percent more time in yards while average train speeds fell 5 percent.

“We’ve gotten a lot better. We’re not at 2020 levels, but we are much, much better,” Sanborn said.

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