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Federal regulators ask Norfolk Southern to respond to shipper complaints

By Bill Stephens | November 23, 2021

Deteriorating performance metrics and employment levels concern STB chief

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Man with gray hair speaking
Man with gray hair speaking
Surface Transportation Board Chairman Martin Oberman (Trains: David Lassen)

WASHINGTON – Surface Transportation Board Chairman Martin J. Oberman today asked Norfolk Southern CEO Jim Squires to explain the railroad’s deteriorating performance metrics and rising number of shipper complaints.

“I am requesting that you provide the Board with a review of the current state of NSR’s network, and your assessment of what factors are affecting NSR’s ability to achieve past levels of fluidity and consistent service, and in particular the impact on customer service of previous headcount reductions for train, yard, and maintenance employees,” Oberman wrote in a letter to Squires.

James Squires
Norfolk Southern CEO James Squires (Norfolk Southern)

NS’s key performance metrics – including average train speed, terminal dwell, and number of trains holding per day – have trended in the wrong direction over the past several weeks compared to 2019 levels, Oberman noted.

“For example, NSR’s system average train speed for manifest service was 14.01 mph for the second reporting week of November 2021, showing a marked decline against the same week for November 2019 when NSR’s manifest train speed was 20.7 mph,” Oberman wrote. “This delta is particularly troubling given the focus on the manifest network in NSR’s precision scheduled railroading operating model.”

The declining performance figures come as the railroad is struggling to replace train and engine crews who have left the railroad in recent months. The ranks of transportation employees have declined in each of the past three months, Oberman notes.

Norfolk Southern customers have complained to the STB about missed switches, stranded cars, longer transit times, unexpected operating plan changes, and lack of communication from the railroad’s customer service department.

“Many of these complaints are from customers along NSR’s Cincinnati to Chattanooga corridor, but I have also heard from shippers in the deep South and the mid-Atlantic,” Oberman wrote. “Taken together, they represent a cross-section of key commodity groups. These rail service disruptions have caused customers to incur additional costs, typically without compensation from NSR.”

Oberman asked NS to provide an update on the state of its network, explanations of why NS has been unable to match 2019 service levels, and how it plans to attract and retain employees.

Oberman sent a similar letter to CSX Transportation CEO Jim Foote in October.

15 thoughts on “Federal regulators ask Norfolk Southern to respond to shipper complaints

  1. Many portions of the railroad, including the famed Harrisburg-Pittsburgh line over the Alleghenies, are in near melt-down. Two and three re-crews over that 250-mile run, which used to be done easily by one under Conrail. Trains with functioning DPU’s are not allowed to use full power, and are stalling as a result (but thereby saving fuel!). The entire railroad is being run by computers, with not only all dispatchers, but all road foremen as well warming desks in Atlanta. Management, of course, will come back with the usual weasel-word company line that crew and power shortages are to blame, and are being worked on diligently. Bull! There’s plenty of good power in storage; crews who have been repeatedly laid off and recalled are now refusing to come back to work; morale is at an all time low. Looks like the “Nazis of Norfolk” are reaping the whirlwind of PSR. Time for some high-priced heads to roll.

    1. Well stated Mr. Dicenso, and as a former employee with 32 years of service and with many friends still out there whom I keep in touch with, I can attest that everything you stated is true. As an extra, NS has now gone to using a single dispatcher to cover entire operating divisions, instead of having a DS to cover 1 or 2 districts each within the division.

  2. “Weasel Words”? HUH? My guess would be that the ‘explanation’ du jure would be something to the effect that would include ‘ employee shortages due to COVID 19 and the Government’s mandates and those ‘mandated deadlines’ relative to Shots(JABS) / or required Booster’s” … And their back-up rationale might also possibly include ‘issues’ surrounding the move of the Head-shed from Norfolk to Atlanta?? … You can bet that the Corp response will an elaborately constructed ‘Bob and Weave’; that will leave NS’s management ‘Nazi’s’ unscathed; while we now get to guess: Who’s the lucky Guy (or Gal?) who gets to take the ‘bullet’ for the team?

  3. Al is correct. All one has to do is listen to the radio. Engineers begging for permission to put more power on line to get over the road….and being denied. Trains to long to fit anywhere off the main so when the crew goes on the law it ties up the main. Computerized dispatching that frequently cross trains over for no reason. Or crosses an eb train over to a track with several wb on it. So someone waits. Meanwhile there isn’t a single train on the temrack the eb was just removed from. I’m still in the railroad industry and would never go to a Class 1 today.

  4. Southern Railway Marketing Slogan:
    “The science of business is the science of service. He profits most who serves the best. It is better to do more than you promise than to promise more than you do”

    1. Some of us are old enuff to remember ATSF’s Super C train. A premium-tarriff freight that ran at passenger train speeds and ran no matter how few loads – sometimes a handful, maybe one load.

      Okay, maybe the Super C was a bit over the top and clearly a loss leader. It didn’t last very long. Now we’ve gone so far in the other direction that one has to wonder.

      Service to customers? Regardless of where we live and where we watch trains – in my case Milwaukee and Waukesha Counties – we have a long list of industrial spurs torn up or out of service.

    1. JOHN RICE —– You might not like the customer service, or you might take issue with employee relations ….. but you gotta love the gorgeous new chancelry in Atlanta! Welcome to Atlanta, HQ city of America’s best airline and America’s worst railroad.

      Now you know why the company is so anxious to save diesel fuel (Al DiCenso comment above). They need to heat the new building.

      Happy Thanksgiving to all NS officials in the shining new HQ, hope you never have to go out on the road to look at a train.

      1. They won’t be able to get on a road for long due to the traffic in Atlanta. The service managers maybe forced to commute downtown from Buckhead, but the execs will work from home and have their secretaries answer the phones.

  5. NS gave up trackage rights over the Reading and Northern Lehigh Line in August as part of their cost cutting, what effect that has on service might be a factor.

  6. Service will likely improve if R&N services NS’s ex-customers. Unless I’m wrong, the P&G plant at Mehoopany is likely the largest and busiest on the line.

  7. It boggles my mind to think that on the one hand these people will give lip service to the concepts that trains built America, and that America runs on trains, but on the other hand doing EVERYTHING to cause the Federal Government to re-regulate the industry.

    It is pure lunacy.

  8. Perhaps massive, mutli-merged carriers are not manageable nor do computers give any attributes to allowing reductions in staffing on locomotives, consolidated dispatching offices thousands of miles from the real railroad, reductions in maintenance-of-way and mechanical forces, generation of pretty spread sheets, and management by antiseptically clean hands that have never been dirtied at 315AM on a rainy Sunday morning trying to make a pick up 120 cars behind the road engines and having to run the air thereafter.

    The silliness is just plain ruinous to the business.

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