CSX Struggling to Hire New Conductors

The second quarter financial picture for CSX had many positives but also one large negative.

On one hand the railroad’s traffic volume an earnings have recovered nicely from the downturn introduced last year by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Taking into account adjustments for the effects of one-time items, operating income grew 62 percent, while revenue jumped 33 percent, to $3 billion.

Earnings per share were up 82 percent, to 40 cents. The adjusted operating ratio fell to 55.1 percent compared with 63.3 percent a year ago in the second quarter of 2020.

As for traffic volume, it grew in every category, although that comes with an asterisk because the comparisons are with a period of 2020 when rail traffic fell due to the pandemic.

Nonetheless, CSX set a record for intermodal volume and merchandise traffic rose by 21 percent. Even coal traffic showed a 44 percent increase.

Yet hanging over all of this is a challenge that CEO James Foote said won’t be easily resolved.

CSX won’t be able to reach pre-pandemic levels with its merchandise traffic until it hires more train and engine crews to handle strong volume growth.

Foote said the labor market is tight and the railroad has struggled to hire conductors.

“It is an enormous challenge for us to go out and to find people that want to be conductors on the railroad, just like it’s hard to find people who want to be baristas or anything else,” he said during an earnings call. “It’s very, very difficult.”

Last January CSX projected having 500 new conductors on the job by mid summer. Instead it has hired just 200 new conductors and crew attrition has been higher than expected in the first half of the year.

CSX management also acknowledged during the earnings call that its earnings received a boost from from the $349 million gain on the sale of property rights in Virginia for new passenger operations.

Also hindering rail operations were declines in operating metrics, which CSX executives said reflects significantly higher volume than a year ago and crew shortages.

Train velocity in the second quarter fell 16 percent while dwell time was up 18 percent.

On-time train originations slipped by 11 percent to 78 percent, while on-time arrivals fell 20 by percent to 67 percent.

Carload trip-plan compliance declined  to 69 percent from 81 percent a year ago, while intermodal trip-plan compliance was 89 percent, down from 94 percent a year ago.

Although intermodal performance is improving, carload service lags. “On the carload side the reliability isn’t where we need it to be,” said Jamie Boychuk, executive vice president of operations.

Foote said getting merchandise service back to an 85 percent on-time performance by the end of the year will be tough unless the hiring situation changes dramatically.

In the meantime, CSX has reached a new conductor availability agreement with the SMART-TD union that has increased the availability of conductors.

It also is offering incentives to current employees to refer applicants to the railroad.

Boychuk said those in railroad families understand job its lifestyle.

That includes working nights, weekends and holidays in all kinds of weather. Foote said many would-be railroaders don’t want to do those things.

He said those incentives have increased the application pool from a few hundred to more than 1,000.

CSX management is still seeking to figure out how to make train operating jobs more attractive but said, “throwing money at people these days is not the answer.”

Other changes at CSX during the quarter included a 39 percent increase in the use of distributed power.

Autonomous track inspection miles rose by 27 percent and the use of drones to inspect the infrastructure increased by 80 percent.

The personal injury frequency index improved 13 percent, while the train accident rate improved 34 percent to a new record low for the second quarter.

CSX distributed 9,000 tablets to employees to help them share information in real time.

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