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Home / News & Reviews / News Wire / Big four U.S. railroads report progress on service recovery goals (corrected)

Big four U.S. railroads report progress on service recovery goals (corrected)

By Bill Stephens | December 6, 2022

BNSF, CSX, and Norfolk Southern say service is at or near pre-pandemic levels, while Union Pacific touts improvements

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Train with orange locomotives rounds curve
Train with orange locomotives rounds curve
A westbound BNSF intermodal train snakes off the bridge over the Mississippi River at Fort Madison, Iowa, on May 7, 2022. Trains: David Lassen

WASHINGTON – The big four U.S. Class I railroads have told federal regulators that their service is at or near pre-pandemic levels thanks to improved train crew staffing levels.

BNSF Railway, CSX Transportation, Norfolk Southern, and Union Pacific each pointed to improvements in their key operating metrics in updated reports filed on Friday with the Surface Transportation Board. The reports appeared on the board’s website yesterday.

All four railroads raised the service metric targets they expect to hit by May 2023.

The STB in May ordered the railroads to file service recovery plans in the wake of train crew shortages that produced widespread service problems. The board in October ordered the railroads to continue to report expanded service data through at least May. Last week’s reports were an update on the progress the railroads have made to restore service.

BNSF Railway

“We have built significant and sustained momentum towards moving our network past a service recovery posture and … largely returned our service performance to pre-pandemic levels,” BNSF told the board.

BNSF’s average train velocity and terminal dwell are better than 2019 levels, while local service performance was consistent with pre-pandemic levels. For the past 16 weeks, the railroad has generally met or exceeded its on-time performance goals for intermodal, merchandise, and automotive traffic.

BNSF says it has reached or is close to its six-month employment levels for train crews, mechanical, and maintenance of way workers. But the railroad warned that the labor market remains “acutely challenging” in Southern California, Washington, and Montana.

“Despite offering substantial hiring and transfer bonuses, BNSF continues to face staffing headwinds in some regions,” the railroad said. “We anticipate these challenges will be exacerbated in the near-term by increased attrition as employees collect back pay following the conclusion of the collective bargaining process.”

CSX Transportation

CSX says that since late October it has met or exceeded each of the key performance targets it set in May as part of its service recovery plan. The railroad says its “aggressive hiring and retention efforts” have nearly returned conductor employment to normal levels.

“The success of those efforts has allowed CSX’s crew situation to normalize, which in turn has driven a consistent restoration of service since late summer,” the railroad said.

“For the week ended November 25, the average daily Active T&E population was 6,918, which is well within reach of CSX’s 7,000-7,100 year-end goal,” CSX said.

Norfolk Southern

NS says it has made major strides in improving its service since May and has exceeded its six-month target for train and engine crew levels. Although NS exceeded its goals for system velocity and on-time performance for intermodal and merchandise trains, its terminal dwell remains elevated and its local service metric came within a whisker of reaching its six-month target.

“Norfolk Southern has made significant improvements to its service product and operations and the company is well on its way to recovery,” the railroad said. “Since our first service recovery report, Norfolk Southern has: increased Merchandise on time delivery by 44%; achieved a 45% improvement in railroad-caused local plan adherence failures; improved system velocity by 16%; and consistently exceeded 95% on time delivery for Intermodal shipments.”

NS credited the improvements to its conductor hiring efforts as well as implementation of its new operating plan.

NS will continue to hire through 2023 to ensure that it has enough train crews. “Norfolk Southern continues to focus its hiring on crew bases that remain below our targeted minimum staffing levels, as well as widespread hiring to account for attrition,” the railroad said.

Union Pacific

Union Pacific told the board that its “initiatives to improve service, enhance the customer experience, and mitigate network congestion have resulted in improvement since mid-April 2022. In the Revised Plan, Union Pacific focused on detailed plans related to workforce initiatives, customer experience improvements, and network optimization.”

UP, which has lagged the service improvements on the other railroads, said it was confident it would alleviate congestion on its network and reach all of its performance targets by May. The railroad’s crew hiring efforts have reduced the number of trains holding for crews by 44% in November vs. April, the railroad told the board. Train crew employment has risen by 382 people since January, compared to a year-end goal of adding 400 net new train crew employees in 2022.

On-time performance has met UP’s targets for bulk trains in nine of the last 13 weeks, for intermodal for the last four weeks, and for merchandise trains for 18 of the last 19 weeks.

UP also has relaxed its attendance policy in response to employee requests from train, engine, and yard employees. Effective Oct. 15, UP’s points-based system was modified so that points automatically drop after 90 days. In addition, the credit period was halved to 14 credit-eligible days where the employee remains available for service. Points also may be reduced in certain situations if the employee marks up within six hours after a no-show or missed call.

UP said it has developed new customer notifications this year, including customer alerts for track maintenance.

“Union Pacific has been diligently working to improve network operations, grow the workforce, and enhance the customer experience,” the railroad said. “These measures have realized incremental network improvement despite some recent challenges.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said that CSX had no plans to change its performance targets. It has raised its goals for terminal dwell, average train velocity, local service, and on-time performance. The railroad has not, however, changed its service recovery plan due to its ongoing performance improvements.

Also, Union Pacific has raised its performance targets in a full report to the board. News Wire incorrectly used the railroad’s biweekly report, which was filed separately from the interim update.

10 thoughts on “Big four U.S. railroads report progress on service recovery goals (corrected)

  1. BNSF has managed to clear up the line in Arizona…but between Needles and Barstow there are still a few trains being tied down on the mainline and/or mainline sidings. Also noticed several times they would combine Westbound domestic stack trains with Westbound international stack trains…with the power set for the international train acting as the mid-train DPU, it’s pretty telling when the first half of the train is all domestic containers and all international after the mid-train DPU(with no end train DPU and both power sets being 4 units). As for the challenge of hiring people in a location like Needles…there’s literally no other well paying jobs in Needles other than the railroad.

    1. There are actually a lot of job and career opportunities in the river valley and many ex rails are seeing that and deciding that working for the railroad in needles isn’t all it’s cracked up to be and are quitting in big numbers. I have many colleagues and friends that I’ve worked with in needles and quite a few have quit or are going to.

  2. The big orange is already admitting that people are going to quit once they get their back pay. Pretty telling——- nothing to see here folks, just keep moving on………..

  3. Nothing like move the goalposts to ensure a victory. US railroads probably learned it from PSR-pioneer CN itself.

    For instance, a few months ago, CN changed several manifest train symbols in the A400-series to L500’s. For instance, Dartmouth – Moncton train 407 is now symboled as 507. A big benefit for CN: L-series trains are not counted in the speed/velocity metrics, no matter how late they get, or if they are cancelled for lack of crew, locomotives or sufficient traffic to move (yes, CN remains a tonnage-based operation, no matter what management says).

    This also explains why some trains like train M306 also get re-symboled (as L350) whenever there is a dimensionnal load on it.

    That’s PSR for you. Better metrics maybe, but a drop in overall efficiency and car velocity. And absolutely no improvement for shippers.

    1. What ever happened to EHH statements that trains would be run on schedule whether they were maximized or not; That the schedule was what customers were depending on. Seems like that only happens now if the train is 15,000 feet long. Just like the Airlines and Amtrak. Rather than have guaranteed schedules (based on reasonable transit times) the PSR railroads are building in extra time into the schedule to ensure that on time departures and arrivals (delivery) are occurring.

      The railroads can not be trusted to report the facts. They will keep applying the make-up until “the pig” looks like a beauty queen. If NS has actually increased some of their metrics by 40-45% as stated, they must have been performing below 50% to begin with. The railroads must be required to submit their actual numbers to analysts at the USDOT or the STB so that facts are analyzed and not a lot of lipstick and powder. This stuff is all computerized and should not be that difficult to obtain. And maybe all rate increases should have to be justified based on the metrics and not of the whims of the Board Room. Yes that sounds a little like re regulation but that is what will happen if the folks in charge of the railroads don’t wake up and smell the coffee.

      A lot of people are really sick of excuses. And once the trucking industry gets its driver shortages solved, either by more drivers or remote trucks ( as demonstrated already) then what will be the excuse?

  4. I wouldn’t count a 78% on time performance for intermodal as satisfactory, and since no percentages were listed for other railroads or other types of UP service I wonder at their progress as well. It would also be interesting to note what the Class Is consider an adequate hiring level and compare that level with what is required to grow traffic and to allow for health-related/family emergency time-off. Didn’t railroads used to staff extra boards to account for those conditions?

    1. BINGO they set the dates of comparison to make them look better than they are in practice Like Amtrak the masters of obfuscation and phony accounting by all standards. Tracing schedules of manifest freight compliance can only be done by manually analyzing thousands of random samples

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