Fertilizer Shippers Want More STB Oversight of CSX

Fertilizer shippers told the U.S. Surface Transportation Board recently that a shortage of train crews at CSX has led to widespread service problems.

The Fertilizer Institute asked the STB to conduct enhanced oversight of the carrier, which the trade group acknowledged was trying to fix its network.

The letter from the group said the service problems have been ongoing for several months and are hindering the fertilizer industry’s ability to serve its farmer customers.

“In the aftermath of widespread implementation of precision scheduled railroading, it may be that the rail industry is trying to do too much with too little,” the group wrote. “CSX — like other Class I carriers — has reduced its operating costs through a series of measures, including reductions in staff, such as train crews. We have all had some surprises in the past year, but a rebound of shipping volumes should not be one of them.”

CSX has acknowledged having crew shortages and one consequence is that it has been unable to put stored locomotives back in revenue service.

Transit times have lengthened to two to four days longer than usual. The crew shortages have also led to local service in some areas being reduced to once a week from five days per week, and delays to the movements of unit trains.

CSX CEO James Foote in a speech to investors last week said the railroad is seeking to hire and train new crew members as part of its efforts to improve service.

However, he said that all transportation modes are facing more demand than “there is transportation product supply. It’s as simple as that.

“The transportation product is struggling in our case for one reason and one reason only: We’ve been trying to hire since the beginning of the year.”

Foote said CSX in the past year has lost through attrition 7 percent of its train and engine crews and was unable to hire at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Social distancing requirements hindered the railroad’s ability to hold training classes for new conductors.

Foote said it takes time to train conductors and CSX won’t cut safety corners to rush new hires to work.

“None of us are happy with the decline in velocity and dwell. We worked really, really hard to get this railroad to be running as well as it was, and we’re going to get this railroad running back not to where it was but even better,” Foote said.

Foote said CSX has plenty of track capacity and can put into service hundreds of locomotives now in storage to meet expected traffic increases.

At the same time, he said CSX is being cautious not to hire too many new employees, which Foote said could cause the carrier to misses a quarter’s financial targets.

“If you want to have a long-term reputation in the marketplace as a quality service provider, you better be there for people when they need you,” Foote said.

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