News & Reviews News Wire Coal mining companies complain about rail service, particularly in the East

Coal mining companies complain about rail service, particularly in the East

By Bill Stephens | September 20, 2022

CSX and Norfolk Southern say they’re working to ease their ongoing crew shortages

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Blue and yellow locomotive and train of hopper cars passes under signal bridge
A CSX Transportation empty coal train rumbles past the C&O-style cantilever signal at WD Cabin on the CSX’s Big Sandy Subdivision near Burnaugh, Ky., in May 2020.   Chase Gunnoe

WASHINGTON — The trade group representing coal mining operators has asked federal regulators to take action regarding erratic rail service, particularly in the east on CSX Transportation and Norfolk Southern.

Mines have had to curtail production due to poor rail service that’s only getting worse even as demand for coal rises, the National Mining Association told the Surface Transportation Board in a letter last week.

“While mines are running full speed ahead, the same cannot be said for rail, and our members desperately need relief,” the mining association said.

Empty CSX and NS hopper trains arrive hours or days late, one customer said in a National Mining Association survey. Some mining companies have brought in third parties to handle switching and loading of trains at their facilities.

“It is critical for the Board to further hold Class I railroads accountable and to provide additional relief. The NMA urges the Board to take additional action to confront these ongoing service problems that cripple the U.S. supply chains,” the association wrote.

CSX and NS say they’re working to ease ongoing crew shortages.

“CSX is reviewing the letter and intends to provide a response. We always appreciate hearing from our customers. However, the commentary provided in the NMA letter is without attribution and anecdotal, making it difficult to resolve issues in order to improve service,” spokeswoman Cindy Schild says. “Staffing shortages have been the root cause of the service issues experienced in certain regions of CSX’s network. CSX is working diligently to improve service and we are pursuing every reasonable option to increase train-and-engine (T&E) employee hiring and retention. CSX’s average daily active T&E population and availability numbers have shown steady improvement as a result of our hiring and retention efforts.”

CSX has reached three of its six performance metrics targets, and unit train on-time performance “remains strong and above target levels,” the railroad says. Last week 94% of CSX coal trains arrived within 24 hours of the original estimated time of arrival, according to the latest data the railroad reported to the STB.

NS says it’s working to improve service and ease crew shortages.

“We’ve been transparent about service challenges and we’re aggressively addressing them,” NS spokesman Connor Spielmaker says. “In-house, we’ve been offering hiring bonuses to attract new conductor-trainees and have raised wages for them. For our current employees, we are offering availability and referral bonuses, and are signing new labor agreements that will result in wage increases of 24%. We also introduced a new operating plan to simplify the way freight moves across our network and improve fluidity.”

NS does not report unit train on-time performance figures to the STB, noting that its bulk operations are unscheduled.

Demand for thermal coal, both domestically and in Europe, has been rising due to the high price of natural gas used to generate electricity. Overall coal volume on U.S. railroads is up 3.5% for the year to date, according to the Association of American Railroads.

12 thoughts on “Coal mining companies complain about rail service, particularly in the East

  1. Yep. If a train sits for three days in a siding it ain’t dwelling in the yard. Look how much we’ve improved!!!! Operating plans come in a variety of flavors. What’s the flavor for this month?

  2. “Last week 94% of CSX coal trains arrived within 24 hours of the original estimated time of arrival…” How is this considered satisfactory? Now if it was within one hour of ETA – that would be more meaningful. Isn’t PSR supposed to achieve this?

  3. “Performance metrics targets”? It is ridiculously easy to fudge those numbers and have them say anything you wish. Example: yard dwell time: get the train out of the yard and into another, or hold it on a siding for a while. Or do the switching on a branch line siding, as NS does near Harrisburg. Bah, humbug!

    1. It’s just “corporate speak”, nothing more. When any of these Wall Street driven nerds are forced to answer hard questions they always come back with a word salad to avoid what the real answer is, “it’s our fault”.

  4. Customers: “your service sucks and is unacceptable. You’re hurting our business and the national economy”.
    Railroad management: “Blah, blah, blah, numbers, blah, blah, blah”.
    Meanwhile, crews are quitting faster than replacements can be hired and trained.
    That “ain’t no way to run a railroad”.

  5. Geopolitics is a complicated issue, Americans are reactive rather than proactive. It unfortunate that the scope of American geopolitics is the price at the pumps.

    1. Actually there was this pipeline called Keystone which was cancelled by the current Administration. It was plenty proactive when construction started.

      No one anticipated the scope or size of the heat waves that hit the west coast, and they *did* have reserves in place to buffer for an event like it, just not for so long.

      The US is not isolated anymore. Our economy and items we produce are subject to global events and price swings. We tried to shelter the American population after WW2 from these types of price swings and we ended up with gas shortages and cheese stored in salt domes.

    2. The oil in Keystone was destined for the gulf coast, where it would have been refined and sold overseas. For Canada. t was never meant to be consumed in the U.S.

    3. Incorrect. Keystone 4 was to merge Canadian oil with US sourced Bakken Oil and place it into the Keystone pipeline network. Some would supplement delivery to the Cushing, Oklahoma tank complex, some was sent to the Wood River refinery complex in Illinois and also sent to the Patoka, Illinois storage farm. The remaining was sent to Texas.

      It was designed to supplement oil requirements and offset the draw of Texas and Gulf of Mexico oil, most of which of the refined products is sent east using the Colonial pipeline or by barge to the southern parts of Alabama, Mississippi and Florida.

      As it stands today, that oil will still flow, just not by pipeline, but by rail. The CPKC merger will be able to serve many of the same markets the pipeline was intending to serve.

  6. Who would have guessed, electric utilities switching en mass to natural gas and the price goes up, making coal cheap again. When demand starts to climb, the railroads are slow to re-build capacity because everyone tells them coal is dead.

    1. Actually the price of natural gas was going up regardless because of 2 straight years of heat waves in California. This consumed all of their storage reserves and pushed more demand into the field, forcing prices to rise.

      On top of that was the military and political events with Russia and Europe and the NordStream pipeline service being shut off.

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