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Home / News & Reviews / News Wire / BNSF aims to prevent a Fourth of July meltdown by limiting traffic bound for California

BNSF aims to prevent a Fourth of July meltdown by limiting traffic bound for California

By Bill Stephens | June 24, 2022

Railroad details causes of congestion on Southern Transcon and outlines solutions in latest service recovery plan filed with Surface Transportation Board

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Train rounds curve in mountains
Train rounds curve in mountains
An eastbound BNSF Railway stack train climbs Cajon Pass in California on Sept. 12, 2021. Customers have been slow to pick up containers from BNSF’s Chicago intermodal terminals, which has rippled across the Southern Transcon all the way to California. (Bill Stephens)

FORT WORTH, Texas — BNSF Railway’s decision to meter a broad range of carload traffic bound for California beginning next week is aimed at preventing congestion from worsening on the busy Southern Transcon during the Fourth of July holiday period when many crews mark off.

The west end of the Southern Transcon, which carries 80 trains per day, is gummed up due to crew and locomotive shortages in California as well as the ripple effect of congestion at BNSF’s Chicago-area intermodal terminals.

“We face significant resource imbalances — meaning an imbalance between our westbound and eastbound volume levels that leaves our crews and locomotives imbalanced — on our Southern Transcon in general and particularly on our Needles Subdivision, which runs between Barstow, Calif., and Needles, Calif.,” BNSF explained in the amended service recovery plan posted to the Surface Transportation Board’s website on Friday. “These imbalances, which are driven in large part by congestion at our Chicagoland intermodal facilities on the eastern end of our Southern Transcon, are impacting the fluidity of the western end of our Southern Transcon.”

Intermodal customers have been slow to pick up their containers at Chicago terminals, particularly Logistics Park Chicago, or LPC, amid high volume and a shortage of chassis, truck drivers, and warehouse capacity. It’s a problem railroads have faced since intermodal traffic rebounded in the second half of 2020.

“This has led to a significant number of Eastbound trains heading for LPC being staged in sidings across the Southern Transcon waiting to arrive at and be unloaded at LPC. This phenomenon has, in turn, reduced the velocity of intermodal flatcars due to their inability to be unloaded and the subsequent slowing of their return to the West Coast to handle the continued strong demand for imported cargo. It has also limited our ability to handle other traffic on the Southern Transcon as sidings, mainline segments, and terminals are congested with staged freight,” BNSF says.

As of this week, 28 trains bound for Chicago terminals were staged across the Southern Transcon. Over the next two weeks, BNSF will begin limiting the number of intermodal trains originating in California that are destined to Logistics Park Chicago.

BNSF’s classification yard at Barstow is plugged, and the number of trains requiring re-crews is running triple normal levels across California, Arizona, and New Mexico.

BNSF says it is taking several steps to restore fluidity to North America’s busiest freight main line.

It has increased the train, yard, and engine crew headcount on the Needles Sub by 12% since January through a combination of hiring and temporary transfers of crews from other parts of the system. More than half of the transfers are now qualified for active service on the Needles Sub. BNSF has stepped up hiring, is offering conductors hiring bonuses of up to $15,000, and is offering to buy back crews’ accumulated vacation time.

To alleviate locomotive shortages, BNSF is sending 75 recently leased units to Southern California. And as locomotives leave repair shops around the system, they’re being sent to Southern California.

BNSF also has adjusted trip plans to road freights to reduce the number of work events or so that they can bypass the Needles Subdivision.

The embargo on westbound carload traffic that BNSF announced on Thursday is designed to meter volume on the Needles Subdivision “in in light of recent service interruptions and ensure that our service in Southern California does not degrade over the Fourth of July holiday when our crew availability has traditionally been substantially decreased,” BNSF told the board.

BNSF expects crew vacations to peak during the week of July 4, and slowly decline over the rest of the summer.

“During the first week of implementation, permits will be used to ensure sufficient westbound shipments destined for California of animal feed as well as critical energy, public water and military supply; we continue to monitor the pipeline for flows of those public welfare commodities, including the current high level of carloads already in the pipeline that will not be impacted by the embargo,” BNSF says.

After the first week of the embargo, BNSF expects to implement exemptions to the embargo for the so-called “public welfare commodities” and similar freight.

“Like the Board, BNSF is aware of the impact that our service issues can have on commodities that are more essential to the public welfare, and our approach to this embargo reflects that sensitivity,” the railroad told the STB. “This embargo is scheduled to be in place until July 31, 2022, but we will be monitoring developments on an ongoing basis in case it becomes necessary to extend it or possible to terminate it early.”

Customers affected by the embargo can request permits for shipments a week in advance.

BNSF has told the board that its service recovery would be choppy and uneven across the system, something the Southern Transcon congestion is proving.

“We are pleased that there are parts of our network — most notably our Northern region between Chicago and the Pacific Northwest — where our recovery efforts have created improved levels of fluidity in the form of increased velocity and decreased dwell. Velocity on our Northern region increased 5.9% in May versus April, and we have seen a 7.4% reduction in dwell in that region since January. As a result of this improvement in the Northern region, we had both our best loading and velocity days of 2022 during the month of June. These overall improvements have directly correlated to an improved service experience for our customers,” BNSF wrote.

9 thoughts on “BNSF aims to prevent a Fourth of July meltdown by limiting traffic bound for California

  1. Perhaps if BNSF and their Class 1 neighbors treated their operating with respect and guaranteed them 2 days off in a row each week and limited call times to specific, daily “windows” maybe, just maybe they wouldn’t have ended up with the manpower problem that have become regular and predictable. Of course, they would have to hire more people and pay them more money.

    The root of this problem is the insatiable greed of executives that are grossly over compensated with both salary and stock and their Wall Street or Omaha masters mandating slash-and-burn PSR to the detriment of workers and the public.

    This type of systemic rot is literally everywhere in the US economy. Has anyone you know been in a hospital or nursing home? Have you traveled by air recently? How about shrink-flation while shopping? Late stage capitalism isn’t a pretty sight. And the recession hasn’t even started yet.

    Hoping for regulatory rebirth that include SEVERE financial penalties for chronic mismanagement and the failure of common carrier obligations. Enough is enough…

    1. good comment, but send it where it needs to be handled, to the Secretary Department of Transportation the strongest potential candidate for POTUS “Pete B.” and he will show the country how capable he is.

  2. @Charles Landy. Please let us know how Donald Trump would have quickly solved this problem. Thanks!

    1. Charles is at his chess club picnic this afternoon. This is his cat Burlington Northern Santa Fe answering on his behalf. I can firmly state that neither of my parents, Charles or his wife, can stand Donald Trump. They both think he is a total dork.

      However, Daddy thinks even less of Pete B.

    1. Trump has a long, well-chronicled history of poor labor relations and abuse of labor. Workers at multiple Trump projects from New Jersey to Florida to Scotland have suffered as a result. As President, his efforts against labor are also captured by the Economic Progress Institute who monitors labor/management relations.
      So far I’ve been impressed by Secretary Buttigieg in office. He is such an improvement over Elaine Chao who was clueless and a sloth. Her marriage to Jim Crow Mitchy McConnell was her only C.V. Buttigieg has been involved in a myriad of efforts at DOT and between being a war veteran and brilliant, he clearly can work with all types and solves problems.

  3. The issue at the Chicago Terminal is straightforward. More containers than drivers. Some lines at the terminals have been 3-5 miles long. The cost of diesel is through the roof, do you think an independent driver is going to sit and idle for hours before his clock times out? (No)

    Second, CSX stopped forwarding traffic east of Chicago to terminals in Michigan, Ohio, Indiana. They told shippers to go dray them, which puts yet more pressure on UP and BNSF terminals in Chicago for drivers to come pick their containers up and truck them to the next state over.

    And the carriers are trying to catch up with the backlog at Pacific ports.

    Triple whammy.

    I would have CSX reopen some yards and start accepting containers for mid-east
    drayage and get them out of the Chicago Terminal. UP has been doing this in congested Long Beach, and pushing them up to Salt Lake. For crying out loud, there were reports of shippers trying to dray out of Long Beach all the way to Boise, Idaho.

    NS announced the Hapag-Lloyd arrangement via Chicago, but that doesn’t really deal with this issue.

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