Posts Tagged ‘BNSF’

STB Wants More Detail in Service Recovery Plans

June 15, 2022

Federal regulators have ordered four Class 1 railroads to submit more detailed plans to resolve freight service issues that have plagued the industry in the past year.

The order applies to Norfolk Southern, CSX, BNSF and Union Pacific.

In particular, the U.S. Transportation Board has ordered the carriers to correct what regulators see as deficiencies in the service recovery plans all four carriers submitted last month.

The board is also ordering the railroads to provide more information on their actions to improve service and communications with customers, as well as more detailed information on what they’re doing to hire more workers in order to provide more reliable rail service.

For example, STB members were dissatisfied with the plans submitted by NS and UP because they failed to include six-month targets for achieving performance goals.

“Unfortunately, these four carriers submitted plans that were perfunctory and lacked the level of detail that was mandated by the board’s order,” STB officials said in a statement. “The plans generally omitted important information needed to assure the board and rail industry stakeholders that the largest railroads are addressing their deficiencies and have a clear and measurable trajectory for doing so.”

The STB’s statement said the recovery plans need additional information which the STB order has laid out.

The service recovery plans were ordered on May 6 and came shortly after a two days of hearing in late April on shipper complaints of poor rail service.

The STB’s original order said the service recovery plans were to describe remedial initiatives and promote a clearer vantage point into operating conditions on the rail network.

STB Summons Class 1 CEOs to Talk Service Issues

April 8, 2022

The U.S. Surface Transportation Board will conduct public hearings on April 26-27 to discuss what it termed “urgent” service issues facing the nation’s freight rail network.

Regulators ordered high-ranking executives from BNSF, CSX, Norfolk Southern and Union Pacific to appear at the hearings.

Executives of Canadian Pacific, Canadian National and Kansas City Southern were also invited to address regulators.

Also expected to appear are representatives of other railroads, shippers, railroad labor unions, and other interested parties.

In a statement the STB said it has received numerous complaints in recent weeks from shippers and others about “inconsistent and unreliable” freight service.

The STB statement quoted STB Chair Martin Oberman as blaming the service issues on the precision scheduled railroading operating model, an obsessive desire to lower operating ratios and drastic workforce reductions.

“During my time on the Board, I have raised concerns about the primacy Class I railroads have placed on lowering their operating ratios and satisfying their shareholders even at the cost of their customers,” Oberman said. “Part of that strategy has involved cutting their workforce to the bare bones in order to reduce costs.”

Oberman’s statement noted that Class I railroads have collectively reduced their workforce by 29 percent or 45,000 employees.

The statement also said that such key performance metrics as terminal dwell time and average train speed have declined in the past few months.

For their part, the Class 1 railroads have attributed the service issues to crew shortages, which they say are rooted in difficulties they are having in retaining employees in a tight job market.

The railroads have said those issues are also affecting numerous other industries.

In his statement, Oberman said regulators will explore not just how the situation got to where it is but also what can be done to resolve it.

This will include exploring how regulators can use their authority to implement measures to address emergencies, increase transparency, and promote reliable service.

The hearings will be open to the public in person and through the STB’s website.

Those wishing to speak should notify the STB by April 14. Written testimony is optional but should be submitted by April 22.

Grain Shippers Complain About Poor Service

March 29, 2022

 A shippers group has written to the U.S. Surface Transportation Board to complain about poor service being offered to grain producers by three Class 1 railroads.

The letter was sent by the National Grain and Feed Association and said crew shortages related to the practice of precision scheduled railroading have led some of its members to shut down flour mills and feed mills.

“At rail origins, NGFA members are unable to purchase grain from farmers because they are full while awaiting loaded trains to be moved out by the railroad,” CEO Michael Seyfert said in the letter addressed to STB Chairman Martin Oberman.

In some cases, the letter said, livestock producers lack alternatives to rail-hauled grain shipments.

The letter contained numerous anecdotes of hardships faced by members of the trade association, including a member having to spend $3 million on alternative transportation to try to keep animals fed for a month.

The three railroads named in the letter were Norfolk Southern, BNSF and Union Pacific.

On NS, grain trains were said to have averaged 53.74 hours of delay at origin with an average of four trains held per day. There were 423 loaded grain hoppers and four empties that did not move for 48 hours or more.

In a statement, NS acknowledged having service issues but insisted it is making progress in alleviating them with a large class of conductors in training and offering hiring bonuses in areas where it has worker shortages during a tight labor market.

The letter can be read at https://www.stb.gov/wp-content/uploads/NGFA-Letter-to-STB-Chairman-Oberman-on-Rail-Service-and-Precision-Scheduled-Railroading-March-24-2022.pdf

Rail Unions Want Attendance Policies Probe

February 8, 2022

Two railroad labor unions are seeking a federal inquiry into the attendance policies of Class 1 railroads, Trains magazine reported on its website.

The action stems from a new policy being implemented by BNSF that unions say threatens safety because it could lead to workers having to be on the job when they are tired.

The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, and the Transportation Division of SMART have threatened to strike over the work rule changes at BNSF but the carrier went to court in Texas to obtain an injunction against a strike.

The two unions are now taking their case to Labor Secretary Martin Walsh and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg by seeking a federal review of the policies. 

The BNSF plan, known as Hi-Viz, assigns points to workers that they can be lose if they miss work for non-approved reasons.

Workers could be subjected to discipline or dismissal if they lose too many points over a given time period.

The unions contend the policy will force railroaders to accept job assignments even if they are tired.

Class 1s Pause Vaccine Rules, Amtrak Does Not

December 10, 2021

Three Class 1 railroads will delay implementation of COVID-19 vaccination rules but Amtrak said it plans to require the vaccinations.

The action follows a ruling by a federal judge in Georgia who issued a nationwide stay of an executive order from the Biden administration that federal contractors require their workers to be vaccinated by early January.

Judge R. Stan Baker issued the stay in response to a lawsuit filed by seven states.

The judge said the plaintiffs “are likely to succeed in their claim that Biden exceeded authorization from Congress when he issued the requirement in September.”

Baker’s ruling applies nationally because another plaintiff in the suit, the Associated Builders and Contractors, has members who do business nationwide.

The Biden executive order had required “federal contractors and subcontractors to comply with workplace safety guidelines developed by a federal task force.”

Those guidelines require employees to be fully vaccinated by Jan. 18 with limited exceptions being allowed for medical or religious reasons.”

Earlier, Amtrak, Norfolk Southern, Union Pacific and BNSF cited the executive order in requiring employees to get COVID-19 vaccinations.

Unions representing workers at all of those carriers have sued in an effort to get the rules overturned. The unions have said they are not opposed to COVID-19 vaccinations but want the carriers to engage in collective bargaining over any rule requiring vaccinations.

Another federal judge in Kentucky had issued a similar stay of the Biden executive order but it only was effective in Kentucky, Ohio and Tennessee.

In statements following this week’s court actions, NS, UP and BNSF said they have halted enforcing their vaccine rules but Amtrak said it has not.

NS said in its statement that it has encouraged its workers from the start of the pandemic to follow the guidance of public health experts.

The statement said NS is pausing enforcement of its vaccine rule, which means it will not subject unvaccinated workers to disciplinary action.

The Atlanta-based carrier said it is still still encouraging employees to get vaccinated and will observe how the legal challenges play out.

In a memo sent to its workers on Dec. 9, Amtrak said 95 percent of its employees are fully vaccinated. That percentage increases to 97 percent when taking into account workers who have received the first of two immunizations.

However, it said that regardless of the court action, it will continue to require workers to be vaccinated by Jan. 4, 2022.

The memo noted that Amtrak announced its vaccination rule on Aug. 11, which was before the Biden executive order was issued.

In the meantime, Amtrak said it is sending “counseling letters” to employees who have failed to present proof of vaccination to advise them they are in noncompliance with company policy.

Those failing to provide proof of vaccination by Jan. 4 will be consider insubordinate and termination of their employment will be imposed.

Amtrak has said it expects to fall short of 100 percent compliance with the vaccination rule by Jan. 4 and expects to reduce service levels accordingly.

In testimony to Congress on Thursday, Amtrak President Stephen Gardner said long-distance trains will be subject to operating on less than daily schedules through March.

The passenger carrier has not said which trains would be affected but plans to do that next week.

The Associated Press has reported that all three of the Biden administration executive orders mandating workers receive COVID-19 vaccinations have been stayed by federal courts.

Court Consolidates Vaccine Rule Lawsuits

November 24, 2021

A federal court in Illinois has consolidated lawsuits involving Class 1 railroads and their unions over COVID-19 vaccine requirements.

The action was taken by the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois and involves Norfolk Southern, Union Pacific, BNSF, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen and two other unions.

The Class 1 railroads have cited a federal executive order in requiring their workers to receive the COVID-19 vaccination.

The unions argue that the vaccine edict by the carriers violates the collective bargaining process.

In a related development, unions representing Amtrak workers have filed suit over the passenger’s carrier’s vaccination requirement.

BLET and the Transportation Division of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, and Transportation Workers (SMART-TD) said they generally support vaccination but want Amtrak to engage in collective bargaining over the issue.

The unions claim Amtrak is negotiating directly with employees rather than talking with their unions.

The lawsuit against Amtrak raised many of the same issues as those in the litigation involving NS and UP.

Amtrak is requiring its workers to submit proof of vaccination before Dec. 8. Those workers who have received just dose of the vaccine have until Jan. 4, 2022, to show proof of being full vaccinated.

The carrier has threatened to fire workers who failed to comply with the rules.

3rd Quarter Offered Mixed Rail Traffic Picture

October 9, 2021

Half of North America’s Class 1 railroads posted traffic gains in the third quarter of 2021 but the other half saw their traffic volume fall.

BNSF posted 4.1 percent traffic growth in the quarter, which ended Sept. 30, led by 7.1 percent growth in its carload traffic thanks to strong gains in coal and chemicals.

Canadian National on the other hand saw its traffic fall 1.7 percent overall with intermodal volume declining by 7.1 percent.

Canadian Pacific’s traffic volume was up nearly 1 percent with intermodal volume growing by 8.5 percent.

CSX posted a traffic gain of 1.8 percent while Norfolk Southern had a 1 percent overall traffic loss. NS carload volume rose 5.2 percent but its intermodal traffic fell 4.9 percent.

Union Pacific’s carload volume was up 5 percent but experienced a 7 percent decline in intermodal. Overall, UP’s traffic was down 1 percent.

All railroads reported seeing gains in coal traffic spurred by rising natural gas prices. The Class 1s all had plunges in automotive traffic due to automakers reducing production due to computer chip shortages.

Third quarter financial reports are due to be released this month with CN releasing its report on Oct. 19, CSX releasing its report on Oct. 20 and NS releasing its report on Oct. 27.

Riding Amtrak Still an Enjoyable Experience

October 3, 2021

The southbound Saluki arrives in Effingham, Illinois, behind an SC-44 Charger locomotive.

Back in July Amtrak sent me an email warning that my Amtrak Guest Rewards account had been inactive for 24 months and my points would expire in mid September.

The email listed ways to keep my account active including buying an Amtrak ticket or redeeming points for travel or Amtrak-branded merchandise.

I filed all of this in my “to do” mental folder. As September dawned I needed to do something.

My account had 21,000 points, which isn’t enough for a spectacular trip, but I didn’t want to lose those points either.

I thought about using points for a day trip to Chicago on the Cardinal. I also considered making a short trip from Effingham to Mattoon, Illinois, on the Saluki, an Illinois Department of Transportation funded train between Chicago and Carbondale.

The distance between those two towns is 27 miles and the trip takes just 24 minutes. That wouldn’t be much of a train ride.

Instead I decided on something I hadn’t done since 1983.

The equipment for the southbound Saluki lays over in Carbondale for 2 hours, 20 minutes before returning to Chicago as the Illini.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s I had on occasion ridden Train 391 from Mattoon to Carbondale and returned that evening on Train 392. In those days they were named the Shawnee.

Since I was last in Carbondale, the Illinois Central passenger station has been renovated and received an IC equipment display of a GP11 and caboose. I could photograph that.

Amtrak opened a new Carbondale station three blocks south in October 1981. I have hundreds of photographs of Amtrak trains on the former Main Line of Mid-America but none in Carbondale.

However, instead of leaving from Mattoon, I would depart from Effingham.

I planned to use points for the trip but that changed when I discovered a one-way non-refundable fare of $8. Even if for some reason I couldn’t make the trip I would only be out $16.

I booked it for Sunday, Sept. 12, a mere three days before my points were to expire.

Booking travel on Amtrak is more involved than it was before the COVID-19 pandemic.

You must click a box agreeing to wear a mask in stations and aboard the train.

Amtrak also tried to get me to buy trip insurance. Did they really think I was going to do that for a $16 ticket?

The afternoon before my trip Amtrak sent me an email directing me to fill out a short form online. Aside from the standard COVID symptoms questions that I’ve become used to answering every time I visit a doctor I also had to agree – again – to wear a mask.

On the day of the trip I arrived at the Effingham station three hours before train time to get in some railfanning before No. 391 arrived.

Effingham back in the day had a station used by the IC and Pennsylvania Railroad. Flanking the passenger station were express depots for both railroads.

Today the passenger station is a cosmetology school and the ex-PRR express depot is used by a catering company as a kitchen.

Amtrak uses half of the ex-IC express depot with the other half used by a tattoo parlor.

I arrived to find work underway to rebuild the Amtrak boarding platform, which complicated my photography due to high construction zone fences and orange fabric barriers.

CSX sent one train through town, an eastbound grain train, while Canadian National sent two northbounds and a southbound past the station.

A CN train working the yard came north of the diamonds for headroom and to clear the block before going back into the yard.

Three of the four CN trains had IC SD70 locomotives wearing the pre-merger IC black “death star” livery.

One of the southbounds had a motive power consist of two IC “death stars” and a Grand Trunk Western geep in its original livery. Talk about a heritage consist.

I also observed the coming and going of the northbound Saluki.

For nearly a year Amtrak has assigned Superliner equipment to its Chicago-Carbondale trains. The Saluki and Illini are pulled by SC-44 Charger locomotives owned by IDOT and leased by Amtrak.

My foray to Carbondale would be my first trip behind a Charger locomotive. Interestingly, my first trip aboard a Superliner coach was a day trip to Carbondale in June 1979 when the then-new cars were in break-service on Midwest corridor trains before being assigned to the Empire Builder that October.

No. 391 was about 15 minutes late. I stood alone on the platform, mask firmly in place, the only passenger to board on this day.

I wasn’t surprised. When I had bought my ticket Train 391 was shown as at 13 percent of capacity.

I presented my ticket to the conductor but he said he had already checked me off. About 10 passengers disembarked.

I was one of just two passengers in my coach. The conductor came to my seat and asked if I had ridden with Amtrak before.

Yes, I have – many times actually – but not since before the pandemic. The conductor noted there was a café car up ahead. I didn’t plan to patronize it but thanked the conductor for that information anyway.

I settled back in my seat and enjoyed watching the countryside pass by. It had been more than three decades since I had seen Southern Illinois in daylight from the vantage point of an Amtrak coach window.

As we slowed for the Centralia station, a northbound BNSF coal train passed on an adjacent track. It had a distributed power unit on the rear.

Centralia was once the home of a large IC car shop. As best I could determine, most of that complex is gone.

It used to be that southbound passenger trains went around the Centralia yard complex on the west side. That wasn’t the case today although I could see that track still goes over that way.

We passed the yard on the east side.

The yard had a moderate number of freight cars and some motive power, including the two “death stars” and GTW geep I had seen earlier. A massive coaling tower still stands in the yard.

Our next stop was Du Quoin where Amtrak shares a small modern depot with the local chamber of commerce. It opened in August 1989.

Carbondale used to have a large yard, too, but most of it is gone. The former St. Louis division offices were razed years ago.

All that’s left are a few tracks and the twin coaling towers that stand near where the roundhouse used to be.

Due to schedule padding we arrived at the Carbondale station 15 minutes early and slightly less than two hours after leaving Effingham

It turns out most of the Carbondale passengers had been in other coaches.

Shortly after No. 391 arrived, the crew backed the equipment north to the yard and turned it on a wye track.

I made photographs of the ferry move in both directions passing the former IC station.

It was a warm day and I walked to a Circle K to get a large bottle of Gatorade. I walked around a bit, photographing the old IC station, which houses a small railroad museum that wasn’t open on this day, as well as offices of the chamber of commerce and a non-profit organization that promotes downtown Carbondale.

A statue of an IC conductor pays tribute to the railroad’s long history in Carbondale, which used to be where St. Louis cars were added or removed from trains bound to and from New Orleans and Florida.

A northbound CN tank car train came through during my layover.

I was dismayed to find the Carbondale Amtrak station is only open during the day on Wednesdays. But it’s open seven days a week at night to accommodate passengers for the City of New Orleans, which arrives in both directions in the dead of night.

There were around 50 of us waiting outside the station.

There would be just one conductor on tonight’s Train 392. He opened two doors of the train and stood on the platform.

I was expecting him to come up to the crowd and announce that boarding was ready to begin.

Instead he raised an arm and waved it a bit, which I interpreted as a signal to come out and get on board.

I started walking toward the train and the crowd followed me. Everyone was put in the same car.

We left on time and made the same stops as we had earlier. In Centralia I spotted a young man running from the parking lot toward the train, which was about done boarding.

If the conductor saw him, he ignored him because the train began moving. I expected the conductor to see the guy and order the engineer to stop. But we kept going.

CN and Amtrak have been at loggerheads for years over a number of operating issues including CN’s edict that Amtrak operate with a minimum number of axles to ensure that grade crossing signals are activated.

That is in part why I was riding a train with seven Superliner cars with far fewer passengers than the train’s capacity.

Amtrak and CN also have sparred over dispatching with Amtrak accusing CN of needlessly delaying Amtrak’s trains.

I know from years of experience in riding Amtrak between Mattoon and Chicago that delays due to freight train interference are not uncommon, particularly around Champaign.

But on this day we didn’t meet a single CN freight during on my trip.

I was the only passenger getting off at Effingham. Seven people were waiting on the platform to board.

A woman at the back of the line was not wearing a facial mask and the conductor refused to let her board.

I don’t know why she was maskless, but as I walked to my car I noticed the conductor had placed the step box aboard the train and stood in the doorway as the woman gestured while making her case – whatever that was – for not wearing a mask.

The conductor was having none of it and No. 392 left with the woman standing on the platform.

It had been an enjoyable outing and not all that much different from other trips I’ve made on Amtrak. The number of passengers aboard was less than I expected given that it was a Sunday, which normally is a heavy travel day on this route.

Sometime within the next year new Siemens Venture cars are expected to be assigned to Midwest corridor trains and maybe I’ll do another Carbondale roundtrip to experience them.

A pair of IC SD70s and a Grand Trunk geep pass the under construction Effingham Amtrak boarding area.
The DPU on a northbound BNSF coal train in Centralia.
Disembarking at the Carbondale Amtrak station.
The equipment for Amtrak’s northbound Illini passes the former IC passenger station at it backs down to the Amtrak depot in Carbondale.
A northbound CN tank train passes the Carbondale Amtrak station where the Illini awaits its 4:05 p.m. departure.

Supply Chain Congestion Seen as Lasting 6 Months

September 17, 2021

Industry observers expect that the tangled global supply chain will take at least six months to untangle, reported Trains magazine this week on  its website.

The magazine quoted intermodal consultant Larry Gross as saying the strain on the intermodal operations is unprecedented, the worst he has seen in his 41 years in the business.

Gross spoke during a panel discussion at the Intermodal Association of North America’s annual Intermodal Expo event.

Analysts say that a flood of imports driven by an explosion in consumer spending has hindered the supply chain between Asian ports, to U.S. ports to railroad networks and their intermodal terminals.

Also driving the congestion has been the fact that retailers are struggling to keep up with consumer demand because their product inventories dipped during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic.

A record 59 container ships recently were reported to be anchored off the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach awaiting berth space.

Lars Jensen of Copenhagen-based Vespucci Maritime told the panel that some of those vessels have been in San Pedro Bay for more than two weeks, delaying the unloading of more than 400,000 twenty-foot equivalent units, or TEUs, the standard measure of international containers.

Much of that cargo will eventually travel to the Midwest and Texas via BNSF or Union Pacific intermodal trains.

Rail intermodal volume has fallen by 10 percent from its May levels and is down 7 percent compared to where it was a year ago at this time.

 “What we really have here is a system starting to bog down from all the operational constraints, congestion, and lower velocity, shortage of equipment, you name it,” Gross said.

He said all links in the supply chain share some of the blame for that congestion.

One panelist, Evan Armstrong of Armstrong & Associates, said railroads are missing an opportunity to pick up business that is instead going to trucking companies.

Yet railroads say shippers have been slow to pick up their containers at intermodal terminals, particularly in Chicago, and that has had a cascading effect.

 Shippers also have been holding containers at their warehouses, which has created a shortage of chassis used to tote containers.

Tim Denoyer, vice president and senior analyst at ACT Research, said the chassis shortage is unlikely to be resolved for another six to 12 months.

Officials at Union Pacific, Norfolk Southern, and Canadian Pacific all said during the panel discussion that intermodal systems were in “disarray” around the globe.

They said their intermodal networks have capacity to handle current volumes, but only if all links in the supply chain are working relatively smoothly.

“Everything depends on speed,” said Leggett Kitchin, NS vice president of domestic intermodal. “At the current speeds, the box supply is probably tight.To the extent that we can speed up, and the street can speed up, then we’ll have capacity to grow into.”

STB Finds 5 Class 1s were Revenue Adequate in 2020

September 10, 2021

The U.S. Surface Transportation Board has determined that five Class 1 railroads had adequate revenue during 2020.

The carriers were BNSF, CSX, Kansas City Southern, Soo Line (Canadian Pacific) and Union Pacific.

A railroad is considered to be revenue adequate if it achieves a rate of return on net investment equal to at least the current cost of capital for the railroad industry.

During 2020 the STB determined that to be 7.89 percent.

The five carriers cited by regulators achieved a rate of return on net investment equal to or greater than the agency’s calculation of the cost of capital for the railroad industry.