Posts Tagged ‘Canadian Pacific’

CSX Had Lowest 1st Quarter Operating Ratio

May 10, 2018

CSX has the lowest operating ratio among Class 1 railroads in the first quarter of 2018.

The operating ratio of 63.7 percent compared to 69.4 percent during the first quarter of 2017 and was 0.9 points ahead of second-place Union Pacific.

A year ago, CSX was second-to-last among railroad operating ratios.

Chief Financial Officer Frank Lonegro said earlier this year that CSX is seeking to hit a 60 percent operating ratio by 2020.

To be sure, there are underlying factors that enabled CSX to post the performance that it did.

Indeed, CSX’s operating-ratio ranking led by the pack due to a number of factors, including an accounting rules change that disproportionately affected longtime industry leaders Canadian National and Canadian Pacific.

Both Canadian carriers also had to contend with higher operating costs due to harsh winter weather and congestion.

Likewise, first quarter operating ratios tend to fluctuate due to the effect of winter weather.

CSX also benefited from a 96 percent increase in “other revenues,” which included such things as demurrage, a $30 million-increase in real estate sales, and a doubling of equity earnings of affiliates such as the Indiana Rail Road, Conrail, and TTX.

Even CSX CEO James M. Foote cautioned not to read too much into the first quarter operating ratio.

“The plan recently laid out at our investor conference is a three-year plan,” Foote said. “We’re only one quarter in, one out of 12, and we still have a lot of work to do to achieve our goals.

“As we demonstrated in the first quarter, we expect a solid step-down each year in the operating ratio. There remains significant work ahead in order to deliver on our 2020 target.”

Foote told investors earlier this year that the railroads is handling about the same amount of volume that it hauled a year ago with eight fewer hump yards, 1,000 fewer locomotives, 4,000 fewer employees and 20,000 fewer railcars.

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Another Shipper Group Unhappy With Railroads

March 27, 2018

A shipper group representing fertilizer producers has joined a growing chorus of customers that is giving the U.S. Surface Transportation Board an earful about service issues.

“Rail service challenges have been ongoing and increasingly pervasive,” wrote Chris Jahn, president of The Fertilizer Institute, in a letter posted on the STB website.

Although Jahn mentioned CSX, he went on to say the carrier, which underwent major operational changes in 2017, is not the only problem spot for his members.

If anything, Jahn said, CSX service has improved recently. But fertilizer produces continue to experience “serious service disruptions” when shipping on Canadian National, Canadian Pacific, Norfolk Southern and Union Pacific.

“Unfortunately, these service challenges are becoming increasingly pervasive,” Jahn wrote.

Some railroad industry analysts say service problems are a missed opportunity for railroad companies during a time when truck capacity is limited. Instead, carload freight volumes have been falling this year.

“This isn’t a crisis — but could lead to a gigantic missed market share opportunity,” Anthony B. Hatch of ABH Consulting said in an interview with Trains magazine.

Reading Between the Lines of How CSX Management Projects Itself to the World

March 7, 2018

CSX executives revealed last week at long last their vision for their company. They were supposed to have done it last fall, but three top-ranking vice presidents left during a management shakeup. Then CEO E. Hunter Harrison died.

But things have now stabilized. CEO James M. Foote and his management team put forth the most optimistic and rosy scenarios that they dared to spin.

Hovering over those presentations in New York City, though was Harrison.

A year ago Harrison and the hedge fund Mantle Ridge were closing in on their takeover of CSX, a feat they pulled off with a relatively small amount of money and in a short amount of time.

Harrison had great plans for the hidebound CSX. He brought the precision scheduled railroading model that he had implemented on the Illinois Central and then at Canadian National and Canadian Pacific.

Foote and his team went to great lengths to show that Harrison’s vision is their vision, too. Harrison received the reverence normally reserved for a company founder or elder statesman of much longer tenure.

Harrison had a lot of work to do. Independent railroad industry analyst Tony Hatch and Trains magazine columnist Fred Frailey have described CSX as long hindered by adherence to the practices of its  predecessor railroads, meaning it was  averse to change and rather bureaucratic.

Frailey said ormer CEO John Snow as uninspiring and his successor, Michael Ward, sought to move CSX forward but was bewildered as to how to get it out of its rut.

No wonder the CSX board of directors gave Harrison a chance even if, to quote his successor Foote, Harrison engaged in “carpet bombing” the railroad with fast-paced changes that led to widespread service failures that drew the ire of shippers and the attention of the U.S. Surface Transportation Board.

But all of that is behind CSX now, or so management wanted those attending or watching the presentations in New York to believe.

Some have bought it. Writing in Progressive Railroading, Hatch quoted an  investor as saying this was the best CSX meeting he had seen in a decade of watching the railroad.

The current management team laid out  goal of a 60 percent operating ratio by 2020, described a new intermodal business strategy, and pointed to the huge buckets of money it will fill from sales of unneeded real estate and rail lines.

Having a plan and making it work are not always, though, the same thing. Truth is every railroad company talks about growing traffic and all of them are facing challenges finding it.

Hatch said that if CSX is to increase its carload and intermodal business it will have to provide consistent and improving service.

Frailey didn’t comment directly on the New York conference, instead referring readers to articles written by the magazine’s writer covering the story, Bill Stephens.

Those articles, Frailey correctly observed, did well in showing how CSX seeks to project itself to the world.

Yet Frailey said some industry observers with whom he regularly corresponds have been debating the endgame that CSX management is seeking and it isn’t necessarily to grow traffic and become North America’s best railroad.

Those observers think CSX plans to eventually liquidate the company.

Frailey said the case for liquidation goes as follows: “The railroad borrows money to buy back an astounding $5 billion of stock, making every dollar of profit worth more to shareholders who stick around because the same amount of earnings is spread among many fewer shares . . . Freight rates are being jacked up to cover fully allocated costs, a direction I’m told only Union Pacific has gone up to now—milk the cow until it collapses, the saying goes. Its carload business has been steadily eroding since the turn of the century.”

The veteran journalist who has written about railroads since the 1960s said  he understands that CSX has reduced its marketing staff to a hard core operation.

That hardly sounds like a railroad that will be able to aggressively go to find new business. Perhaps CSX expects that by offering a superior product that shippers will come to it begging to do business.

The word “liquidate” that some of Frailey’s contacts used to describe CSX’s endgame is unfortunate because it conjures up selling assets and going away.

Perhaps a better description might have been to break up the railroad much as Illinois Central Gulf slimmed down in the 1970s and 1980s until it emerged as largely a Chicago-New Orleans core with a few arteries connecting to it.

Yes, some rail lines were abandoned, but most wound up in the hands of short line and regional railroads.

It was that railroad on which Harrison first implemented his precision scheduled railroading model.

Frailey isn’t sure what to make of what CSX is doing, but doesn’t believe Foote isn’t prepared to do the job thrust upon him following Harrison’s death.

Foote was in the right place at the right time and for now CSX and its shareholders will let him sit at the throttle and take the EHH train a little further down the line. But it is Harrison’s train orders that Foote is following and not those Foote wrote himself.

Shareholders can be a fickle lot. Just this week Canadian National, a railroad described in most circles as highly successful, pushed out CEO Luc Jobin after the company hit a rough patch.

What I see happening at CSX is that management is trying to walk a fine line between pleasing investors and shippers and keeping at bay a few interested bystanders who have the ability to make life easy or miserable for a company.

Cost cutting and asset sales will only take a company so far in that endeavor. Of course growing traffic makes everyone happy, but is CSX prepared to spend the time and money needed to make that happen. It is so much easier to sell property and lightly used rail routes.

In theory, a company exists to serve its customers because without them you don’t have a company. But theory also says that a company exists to make money for its shareholders.

The two objectives are not necessarily in opposition. Arguably, you can’t make money for shareholders unless you provide a product or service that someone is willing to buy.

But you can’t improve your product or seek to sell more of it without spending money on that, too.

Management has always existed to reconcile those sometimes opposing forces.

The history of the railroad industry is filled with tales of financiers milking companies and leaving them behind. There is reason to believe that CSX is tilting toward enabling the financiers to make a financial killing before moving on to something else.

To quote a line from the John Mellencamp song Peaceful World, “These are just words and words are OK. It’s what you do and not what you say, if you’re not part of the future then get out of the way.”

We will know in time what the future of CSX is but take with some healthy skepticism how CSX projects that to the world.

CP Contract to Affect Ohio Valley Market

February 27, 2018

Canadian Pacific doesn’t own a foot of track in Ohio and the Port of Vancouver, British Columbia, is thousands of miles away, but the Buckeye State looks to benefit from a recent contract that CP reached that will increase its share of intermodal traffic in Vancouver.

CP will begin hauling starting April 1, about 85 percent of the Ocean Network Express traffic passing through the Port of Vancouver.

How does that affect Ohio? It will boost traffic in the Ohio Valley intermodal partnership that CP has with the Chicago, Fort Wayne & Eastern and Indiana & Ohio.

Ocean Network Express is a consortium of shipping companies K-Line, MOL, and NYK.

Canadian National has 70 percent of the container traffic moving through the Port of Vancouver, but CN officials say they will have to turn away some business due to capacity constraints.

International intermodal traffic moving on CN has experienced faster-than-expected growth and increases in traffic in frac sand, grain, and other commodities have left CN congested, particularly in Western Canada.

CP said the agreement with Ocean Network Express is worth $80 million annually over the three-year contract.

Interestingly, CP is gaining back traffic it walked away from when E. Hunter Harrison was CEO of CP because he thought domestic intermodal traffic was more profitable.

But now CP says its costs are similar to those of CN, which puts it in a position to vie for lower-margin international intermodal traffic.

Class 1 Capital Budgets Are Mixed Bag

February 15, 2018

North America’s Class 1 Railroads have varying plans for capital spending in 2018.

At one extreme, Canadian National plans spend a record $C3.2 billion for capital spending, which includes laying new track and buying new locomotives.

That is an increase of C$500 million over what CN spent last year.

On the other extreme are CSX and Kansas City Southern, both of which have cut their capital spending budget.

Compared with its peers, CSX is taking a meat axe to its capital budget, slashing it by $400 million to $1.6 billion for the year.

KCS is reducing its capital budget by $30 million and will spend between $530 million and $550 million.

Union Pacific and Norfolk Southern are planning to increase their capital spending while BNSF and Canadian Pacific have announced flat capital budget.

NS will spend an additional $100 million on a $1.8 billion capital budget while UP is increasing capital spending by $200 million to $3.3 billion.

The BNSF 2018 capital budget is $3.3 billion while CP will spend between C$1.45 billion and C$1.5 billion.

CN plans to spend C$1.6 billion on track and other infrastructure, including replacing 2.1 million ties and more than 600 miles of rail.

It also plans to plunk down C$400 million on equipment acquisitions, including 60 high-horsepower locomotives as part of a three-year, 200-unit order from GE.

At NS, track maintenance projects are budgeted at $930 million this year while it will spend $345 million for locomotives and $50 million for cars.

“Locomotive capital will be focused on the rebuild and conversion of locomotives from DC to AC power,” said NS Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Cynthia Earhart.

With CSX mothballing numerous locomotives and freight cars, it sees no need to acquire new equipment.

KCS said its capital budget is down largely because it won’t be buying any locomotives.

CSX Names Operations VP

January 9, 2018

A former Canadian National executive has been brought out of retirement to help CSX in its implementation of precision scheduled railroading.

Harris

Edmond L. Harris has been named executive vice president of operations and will oversee mechanical, engineering, transportation and network operations.

Harris, who will begin his position immediately, worked with the late E. Hunter Harrison and current CSX CEO James M. Foote at CN.

He also worked with Harrison at the Illinois Central Railroad where Harrison initially implemented the precision scheduled railroading model.

During his 40 years in the railroad industry, Harris rose to the post of executive vice president of operations at CN.

He later served as chief operations officer at Canadian Pacific and held a seat on the CP board of directors.

Harris also was as a senior adviser to Global Infrastructure Partners, an independent fund that invests in infrastructure assets worldwide; chairman of Omnitrax Rail Network; and board director for Universal Rail Services. He began his railroad career in operations at the IC.

Holding a Bachelor of Science degree in management from the University of Illinois-Chicago,  Harris served in the U.S. Marine Corps from 1969 to 1973.

CN Led Traffic Growth in 2017

January 9, 2018

Canadian National led all North American Class 1 railroads in 2017 in traffic growth.

The Montreal-based carrier posted a 10.4 percent increase in carload and intermodal traffic, which was more than double the industry average.

The figures are based on data compiled by the Association of American Railroads, which said that on an industry-wide basis North American rail traffic rose by 4.8 percent in 2017.

Last year, CN saw an increase of 16 percent in its intermodal business and 9 percent in merchandise traffic.

In second place was BNSF, which saw its traffic rise 5.4 percent, much of it fueled by a growth of 6 percent in intermodal and coal business.

Kansas City Southern finished third in the traffic growth derby with 5.2 percent growth in traffic, most of it in merchandise business, which was up 9 percent.

Norfolk Southern had growth of 4.9 percent, much of it coming from intermodal traffic. Canadian Pacific had traffic growth of 4.4 percent, much of it potash and frac sand traffic.

At Union Pacific, traffic was up 2 percent, based largely on coal and frac sand.

CSX was the only class 1 to see traffic decline, by 0.2 percent. Carload traffic at CSX fell by 1.4 percent while intermodal dropped by 2.2 percent.

Harrison’s CSX Legacy Gets an Incomplete

December 17, 2017

Shortly after I learned on Saturday afternoon about the death of CSX CEO E. Hunter Harrison, I logged into Trainorders.com to get a sense of how railfans were reacting to the news.

As I expected, many, although not all, posters wrote harsh, bitter and even over the top comments along the lines of “good riddance.”

A poster who goes by the screen name Darkcloud wrote, in part, “While it might be sad for his family, he ruined a lot of lives of rail workers who didn’t have the safety net of wealth to fall back on that he and his family do. Good men with good records fired under false pretenses or minor errors. Fired to ‘send a message’ or to save a few more dollars to pay for [the] obscene salary he demanded when already a set for life multi-millionaire.”

The business press by contrast offered a more gentile and longer view of Harrison’s passing.

Typical of those accounts was one published at Bloomberg.com that described Harrison as a turnaround chief executive officer.

“By relying on a strategy of cutting costs and implementing procedures to make all parts of the operation more efficient, Harrison transformed Canadian Pacific Railway Ltd., Canadian National Railways Co. and Illinois Central Corp. into rail industry leaders. His reputation among analysts and investors was so strong that CSX shares jumped 23 percent on a single day in January 2017 when reports emerged that Harrison was in talks to take the helm,” Bloomberg reporter Frederic Tomesco wrote.

Can these disparate points of view be reconciled? Yes, if you keep in mind that how you view Ewing Hunter Harrison is shaped by the angle from which you view him.

History books are more likely to portray Harrison in the manner that Bloomberg did than with the emotionally wrought language often employed on chat lists.

And yet both speak to the same point. Harrison was a controversial but hard to ignore figure revered on Wall Street and respected by business writers and railroad trade journals, but often loathed by many who worked on his railroads.

There is no denying that Harrison will be remembered for his concept of precision scheduled railroading that he honed on the IC and then took to CN, CP and CSX.

There also is no denying that the tools that Harrison used to make his railroads more efficient included reducing payroll and demanding in no uncertain terms that workers and manager do things his way.

He lived by the credo of doing more with less; that meant fewer employees and assets, and pushing to get a little more out of both than his predecessors had done.

“Run a tight ship, and you can expect a reasonable return; manage it badly, and the sheer weight of assets will sink you,” Harrison wrote in his 2005 book How We Work and Why: Running a Precision Railroad

Harrison sought to frame himself as concerned with the welfare of his railroad’s employees and even hinted that he was pro labor. Yet at CP he ordered mid-level managers to learn how to operate trains in the event that the unions went on strike.

Likewise, Harrison sought to frame what he was doing at CSX as in the best interests of the railroad’s shippers even as many of those shippers flooded the U.S. Surface Transportation Board with complaints about shoddy service.

CSX acknowledged having service issues during the transition to the precision scheduled railroading model.

But Harrison was an old school manager who saw himself as being in the railroading business and not necessarily the transportation business, a viewpoint that was not unique to him.

He would never accept the premise of that statement, but even by his own words, Harrison acknowledged that CSX was trying to get shippers to change their behavior rather than the other way around.

A few weeks ago he dismissed shipper complaints as long-standing efforts by shipper trade groups to get the federal government to impose regulations on railroads.

This spoke to a paternalistic bent of “I know what is best for you” that no doubt irritated some CSX customers. What is best for shippers is not always what is best for CSX and vice versa.

Of late, Harrison and CSX executives had been touting the improvements that the railroad has made in such metrics as average train speed and dwell time of cars in classification yards.

Some of Harrison’s critics and even his admirers have wondered if precision scheduled railroading could work at CSX with its labyrinth route network and more complex mix of traffic than IC, CN or CP.

We’ll never fully know the answer to that question because Harrison won’t be around to see the process through. His CSX legacy is and always will be incomplete.

He led CSX for less than a year and although the surviving managers are likely to continue the precision scheduled railroading model, they won’t have Harrison around to lean on for guidance, leadership and inspiration.

Whatever successes or failures that CSX has in the coming months and years will be on those managers and not Harrison even if he established the direction that the railroad is going.

I’ve always believed that our society places too much emphasis on the efforts of individual presidents and chief executive officers.

We see them as larger than life figures and tend to attribute to them an organization’s good and bad behavior at all levels.

To be sure, the man or woman at the top sets a tone that percolates downward through the top managers that he or she hired and oversees. Some CEO’s do better at that than others.

Yet the focus on personality can overlook the context in which the top executive operates and might attribute to personality what is actually the work of culture and external forces and how an organization responds to those.

Yes, the personality, talent and skill of the CEO play a role in organizational behavior, but Class 1 railroads are complex organizations that engage in multiple juggling acts to seek to satisfy multiple masters.

Whether you thought Harrison did that well or not depends on your perspective as the commentary about his passing well illustrates. But critics and admirers both can agree that he was a towering figure in the railroad industry who stood over many of his peers and will be remembered for much longer than many of them because of his efforts to be a transformative leader.

CSX Management Shakeup Spooks Some Investors

October 27, 2017

The fallout over a CSX executive leadership shakeup has spooked some investors and sent the railroad’s stock price tumbling.

At close of business on Thursday, the CSX price per share had dropped 2.60 percent to $52.92. In after-hours trading, the decline increased to 3.82 percent, to $50.92.

Cowen and Company Managing Director Jason Seidl told Railway Age magazine that his firm has received numerous calls from investors about the changes, which have Chief Marketing Officer Frederick Eliasson, Chief Operating Office Cindy Sanborn, and General Counsel Ellen Fitzsimmons leaving CSX in mid November.

CSX also canceled an Oct. 30 investors meeting that was to have been held in Florida and used as a forum to discuss the railroad’s future operating plans.

“There was no specific reason given for the Investor Day cancellation, but one would have to imagine the sudden departure of CSX’s CMO, COO and general counsel are primary factors,” Seidl said.

At the same time that CSX announced the departures of three top executives, it said it was bringing on board a former Canadian National manager who worked there with CSX CEO E. Hunter Harrison.

James Foote will assume the post of CSX chief operating officer and replace both Sanborn and Eliasson.

Akron Railroad Club member H. Roger Grant told Trains magazine that a management shakeup of the scale of that which occurred at CSX this week is unprecedented in the industry.

“I can’t think of another example of such a sweep of top executives,” said Grant, a professor of history at Clemson University and author of several books about railroads.

The changes will leave only Chief Financial Officer Frank Lonegro from the management team of former CSX CEO Michael Ward.

Siedl said some investors believe there is more going on at CSX than has been disclosed thus far.

“We do not think the departure of these three people, long-tenured executives at the firm, came on completely amicable terms,” he said. “We think their departure could further disenfranchise additional employees, many of which may blame current management for their departures. This would be something the railroad does not need as it attempts to improve its well-publicized service issues. We expect CSX shares to underperform those of its peers in the near-term or until an explanation is given that can assuage investors’ anxieties.”

In a news release announcing the management changes, CSX said that Sanborn and Eliasson were leaving to pursue other opportunities.

That wording is often used by companies to mask a firing or an employee otherwise leaving involuntarily. Fitzsimmons was said to be retiring.

Trains reported that some industry observers were surprised that the management changes were disclosed less than a week before the investor day event and while the railroad remains under scrutiny of the U.S. Surface Transportation Board in the wake of a summer of service disruptions.

Yet others said they were surprised that Harrison, who became CEO in March, waited this long to make major management changes.

The management shakeup mirrors what Harrison did when he became CEO at Canadian Pacific in bringing in executives from Canadian National, where Harrison had also served as the top executive, to oversee the transition to the precision scheduled railroading operating model.

However, Trains reported that at CP changes in top executives occurred over a five-month period and not in a single day.

The magazine said that concerns about Harrison’s health — he has an undisclosed medical condition that limits his travel and forces him to rely on supplemental oxygen — may have had something to do with the timing of the changes.

Harrison had said during a conference call to discuss CSX’s third quarter earnings that the issue of who would succeed him might be addressed during the investor conference in late October.

At CN, Foote was the carrier’s chief sales and marketing officer between 2000 and 2009. He left CN after Claude Mongeau was named to succeed Harrison as CEO.

Foote, who is now president and CEO of Bright Rail Energy, which oversees converting locomotives to be powered by natural gas, does not have railroad operating experience even though Harrison wrote in a memo to CSX employees that Foot “has a proven track record with implementing precision scheduled railroading and  . . . more than 40 years of railroad industry experience.”

One Wall Street analyst told Trains that Foote knows Harrison’s operating philosophy and what’s expected at a Harrison-led railroad.

“Foote could be the trusted, proven railroader that could be a solid backup for Hunter,” said John Larkin, an analyst with Stifel Equity Research. “Just being part of the senior team at CN was kin to accumulating operating experience.”

Yet Trains quoted another source as saying lack of direct operating experience could be a liability.

“Credibility with ops people comes from working day and night in the field,” said the source, who was not named. “If, for example, you haven’t changed a knuckle 50 cars from the head-end in blinding rain at 2 a.m., you won’t have much credibility among the ranks of T&E personnel, superintendents, and trainmasters. These are the people who get trains over the road and want to be led by people who know their daily grind.”

Larkin said Foote might be a short-term successor while CSX grooms Lonegro to be its next CEO if Harrison has to step down or he does not continue after his four-year contract ends.

Foote is not the first former CN manager hired by Harrison at CSX. Approximately 15 people who worked at CN have been hired in operations at CSX.

In return for being released early from his contract at CP, Harrison had to agree not to poach any of that carrier’s top managers.

However, he was able to bring from CP Mark Wallace, who is now CSX’s executive vice president and chief of staff.

So What is Precision Scheduled Railroading and Why Does E. Hunter Harrison Believe it Will Work at CSX?

October 13, 2017

Since March, the term “precision scheduled railroading” has shown up in a lot of news stories about CSX.

But the model is anything but new. The term has received added attention this year because its chief promoter, E. Hunter Harrison, began imposing it shortly after he became the CEO of CSX last spring.

Harrison developed the model while serving as head of the Illinois Central Railroad. He later took it to Canadian National and then Canadian Pacific after he became the CEO of those roads.

Last year he proposed taking it to Norfolk Southern, but a rebellion by that railroads shippers, its board of directors and various government officials thwarted those plans and Harrison and his associates called off a proposed merger between CP and NS.

But less than a year later Harrison and the Mantle Ridge Hedge Fund successfully engineered a plan whereby Harrison became CEO of CSX.

The name of the model itself provides only a few clues to how it works. Like any philosophy, how it works in theory and how it works in practice are now always in synch and that appears to have been the case at CSX where service problems began within two months and accelerated during the summer.

Depending on who you believe, CSX is either ironing out the kinks or forcing its shippers to change how they do business.

PSR differs from the prototypical railroad practice of holding trains in a yard or on a siding until they’re full.

With PSR, deliveries are given priority from origin to destination as quickly as possible, and each asset is used and monitored constantly so customers can better plan their shipments.

As CSX Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Cindy Sanborn explained it to Progressive Railroading magazine, PSR is designed to improve customer service, control costs, optimize asset utilization, enhance safety and aid workforce development.

Of course it is. What railroads doesn’t say it is doing those things.

Sanborn continued by explaining that PSR seeks to provide customers a more reliable, predictable and cost-effective shipping experience by creating train operating plans that seek to speed cars through the network.

Sanborn acknowledged that a charge made this week at a Surface Transportation Board hearing into CSX service issues that the railroad is forcing customers to change how they operate may be accurate.

“Our service may be configured differently, and the transition to the new system may mean that we’re asking some customers to make some changes, but ultimately we believe that the customer will be happier with that product,” she said.

The latter part of Sanborn’s comment mirrors what Harrison has been saying for weeks that, ultimately, customers will benefit from precision scheduled railroading.

It’s just that many CSX shippers aren’t seeing that yet and Harrison’s pronouncements are coming across as just so much public relations talk.

Trains magazine Fred Frailey columnist wrote last year when CP was trying to take over NS that Harrison has a core belief that freight cars should be moving, not sitting still.

He said Harrison learned this as a young railroad manager and if he saw cars that had been sitting around for awhile he would demand that they get out town on the next train.

When CSX began having its service issues this year, Frailey wrote another column about Harrison and what he is seeking to do at CSX.

Frailey thinks Harrison might have come to CSX with clear ideas about what needed to be done, how it needed to be and who should do it.

Among other things, he apparently believed that CSX had too many hump yards, too many trains and too many employees and contractors.

In short order, CSX made 1,300 train plan changes, cut 2,700 jobs and sent 1,000 contractor and consultant positions packing.

It has retired or stored 850 locomotives and eliminated more than 300 train crew starts per week. Twelve hump yards were converted to flat switching yards because a tenet of precision scheduled railroading is that that humping cars takes more time.

PSR holds that some car blocks can be switched more efficiently at intermediate stops between an origin and destination and in less time than it would take to classify each in a hump yard.

Frailey quoted an industry source who suggested that Harrison didn’t care if CSX loses customers. In the end, he is only interested in keeping those customers whose needs dovetail with the service that he wants to provide.

Most of those would be shippers needing transportation that provids CSX with high margins.

Shippers whose business is more competitive tends to be lower margin business and costs money to keep.

Harrison, like so many other corporate titans these days, is an adherent of the religion of cost cutting.

In that sense, he is not alone. All North American Class 1 railroads are talking about reducing expenses and driving down their operating margins.

The problem that CSX encountered after implementing Harrison’s vision was a clogged network.

Sanborn admitted to Progressive Railroading that the rapid changeover to precision scheduled railroading caused some shippers to experience “unintended effects.”

CSX owned up to it, Sanborn said, noting that in early August, Harrison emailed shippers a letter apologizing for the service disruptions.

“We have redoubled our efforts to resolve customer issues as quickly as we can and to improve communication with customers as we move forward,” she said.

Sanborn said that based on customer comments, CSX management is studying traffic flows across the network by closely analyzing connections between merchandise trains, yard jobs and locals.

Management is seeking to nudge local operating managers to be more proactive in communicating with shippers and solving their problems.

CSX is also considering providing customers more frequent service. Sanborn cited the example of possibly discontinuing unit-train service for a customer who in the past used one or two trains per week, or about 200 cars, and instead offering daily service that would provide about 30 cars  a day.

“For the customer, that [would] mean they need fewer cars and less track space for storing empty or full cars, and there’d be less inventory tied up in transit at any one time,” Sanborn said. “For CSX, it means we are able to handle fewer cars in our scheduled merchandise service, with better balance on the network. That’s a more efficient approach.”

There’s that “e” word again. Efficiency is something that Harrison has long valued.

At the time that Harrison arrived, CSX was in the midst of another operating plan change that the Michael Ward administration had begun executing in April 2016.

That plan was based on the premise that the railroad would emphasize a triangle of routes extending from Chicago to New York, New York to Florida, and Florida to Chicago.

All other routes were secondary and would not receive the same level of maintenance as the key routes.

Trains began getting longer and departed yards every 28 hours rather than every 24 hours. The effect was fewer and longer trains.

At the time, CSX said this realignment would bolster service, boost productivity and improve safety.

But Harrison and his management team tore up CSX of Tomorrow in favor of precision scheduled railroading.

CSX Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer Frank Lonegro said last month during an industry conference that the previous operating plan had resulted in inconsistent financial results.

“Measured by operating ratio, we hovered around 70 percent,” he said. “It wasn’t that long ago that we had an industry-leading OR. Since then, though, the industry has made great progress … but we did not make meaningful progress. On the service side, [we’ve had] a couple of good years followed by a couple of not-so-good years.”

Another flaw of the CSX of Tomorrow plan was that it would take too long to show results. When it was announced, management said it would take years to implement.

But Wall Street is seldom willing to wait that long. John Larkin, a Stifel Equity Research analyst who follows CSX, told Progressive Railroading that many on Wall Street expected an operating ratio in the 50s in a matter of months. “That is obviously not a realistic expectation,” Larkin said.

But it was out there and many on Wall Street tend to view Harrison as a financial savior.

Larkin is among them, saying that Harrison is “the most brilliant operator of our time.”

The news that Harrison wanted to take over CSX was enough to send the value of the company’s stock skyrocketing by double digits.

The service problems of this year may have soured some shippers but they have not dented Harrison’s reputation on the Street.

Larkin argues that many critics, observers and customers are selling Harrison short for the recent performance hiccups.

“He will get CSX service fixed and lower the operating ratio to the targeted levels, no matter what. He won’t accept anything else,” he said.

Independent rail industry analyst Tony Hatch, whose views are often cited by Trains and Progressive Railroading, concurs, citing improvements in CSX service metrics.

Harrison and other top CSX executives have maintained throughout the troubles that things will turn around, that the issues are temporary.

Sanborn said that once the transition period has ended and the operating plan is fully in place that shippers will enjoy a fast and more fluid network. CSX will reap lower costs and a reduced operating ratio.

“While we have made a lot of changes since we began our transition [to PSR], there is still work to be done to refine the operating plan and continue to improve company performance and service to customers,” Sanborn said.

CSX management plans to send stakeholders a long-range strategy overview that it plans to reveal at its investor conference Oct. 29-30 in West Palm Beach, Florida.

“In broad terms, we’ll talk about financial and operational objectives and the timeframes in which we hope to achieve them,” Sanborn said.

“We’re bullish on the future and sometimes you have to break some eggs to get there,” Lonegro said.

Much of the faith that CSX management and Wall Street have placed in precision scheduled railroading is rooted in the belief that it is a strategy proven to work.

By that they mean that it worked at IC, CN and CP, although some skeptics have noted that the networks of those railroads differed greatly from that of CSX.

In touting PSR, Sanborn said it has been proven over time to improve the performance of railroads. It will provide a more intuitive and flexible railroad, she said.

“Our decision-making is driven by [PSR] principles,” she said. “As our business evolves, we will use that framework to determine how to continue meeting our customers’ needs, and operating safely and efficiently, in response to whatever new conditions develop.”