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Home / News & Reviews / News Wire / Norfolk Southern reports record earnings, but crew shortages affect service levels

Norfolk Southern reports record earnings, but crew shortages affect service levels

By Bill Stephens | October 27, 2021

Railroad steps up hiring efforts, addresses its portion of supply chain congestion

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Intermodal train with black locomotives
Intermodal train with black locomotives
A Norfolk Southern intermodal train passes through Otis, Ind., in June 2021. NS set financial records in the third quarter but continues to address intermodal and service issues. (Trains: David Lassen)

NORFOLK, Va. — Norfolk Southern set third-quarter records for revenue, profits, and operating ratio despite flat traffic volume, but a shortage of train crews and ongoing supply chain issues had an impact on the railroad’s service levels.

Operating income surged 21%, to $1.1 billion, as revenue grew 14%, to $2.9 billion, NS reported today. Earnings per share grew 22%, to $3.06. The operating ratio was 60.2%, a third quarter record that was a 2.3-point improvement over last year.

Volume was flat for the quarter, with merchandise up 5%, intermodal down 4%, and coal up 9%. Supply chain disruptions hurt NS international and domestic intermodal volumes.

“Unprecedented demand from inventory restocking and consumer spending outpaced available capacity in the supply chain ecosystem,” Chief Marketing Officer Alan Shaw says. “The combination of drayage shortages, warehouse productivity, equipment availability, labor force participation, and rail network fluidity pressured intermodal volume throughout the quarter.”

NS is adding 1,100 leased chassis to its fleet this quarter, is adding more parking and container storage areas, and is expanding intermodal terminal capacity. “We’re working on things we can fix ourselves,” Shaw says.

With warehouses full, workers in short supply, and drayage capacity hit by a need for drivers and the chassis shortage and terminal congestion, it’s unlikely the broader supply chain will improve until sometime next year, Shaw says.

Crew Shortages Affect Service

“Train speed and terminal dwell were generally flat vs. second quarter and do not reflect performance at desired levels,” Chief Operating Officer Cindy Sanborn says.

NS is having trouble retaining train crews, particularly in critical areas of its network, and is having a hard time recruiting conductor trainees in an extremely tight job market. “It is having an impact on our network,” Sanborn says.

NS did not provide on-time performance figures for the quarter or detail precisely how crew shortages affected service.

In many areas, NS has been able to offset the loss of employees by running longer trains, as well as operating double-length grain and coal trains across portions of their routes, Sanborn says.

“We’ve been hiring aggressively since the beginning of the year and we’ve ramped that program up throughout the year,” CEO Jim Squires says.

The railroad has accelerated its hiring and training programs, which has more than tripled the number of conductors in training classes. But NS also is seeing higher than usual attrition among new conductors and trainees.

NS is offering perfect attendance and referral bonuses to current employees as well as signing incentives to new employees. It’s also using “go teams” of experienced train crews who are willing to temporarily relocate to areas of the railroad that are short staffed.

“People are the backbone of the railroad, and we need to make progress on these initiatives to better manage the effects of a tight labor market,” Sanborn says. “We are committed to having the right amount of resources in the right place at the right time, which will drive both cost control and service quality.”

NS continued to move its tonnage in fewer but longer trains. The railroad employed 7% fewer people in the quarter compared to last year, yet handled 5% more gross ton miles on trains that were 10% heavier than a year ago. Train length was up 3%, and the number of active locomotives in the NS fleet dropped 2%.

To support the use of longer trains, NS has completed one siding extension project and has eight others under way, mostly in the Southeast. Train size has grown for nine straight quarters and has helped improve the railroad’s fuel efficiency by 3% this year.

The crews of NS road trains now use mobile devices to report car pickups and setoffs in real time, which improves shipment visibility for customers. The railroad is expanding the program to its local trains.

Nearly all of the railroad’s signal and track forces are now using the NS mobile app to request and receive track time, which increases safety and productivity because it eliminates conversations between crews and dispatchers.

6 thoughts on “Norfolk Southern reports record earnings, but crew shortages affect service levels

  1. “The railroad has accelerated its hiring and training programs, which has more than tripled the number of conductors in training classes. But NS also is seeing higher than usual attrition among new conductors and trainees.”

    Could it be that they are over worked? Or.. Did these new hires from 2020 end up getting furloughed and never came back?

  2. And the vaccine mandate will make a bad situation worse.

    I’ve just about given up flying the airlines — I have no confidence the crew will be there at the scheduled time of departure.

  3. NS and the other Class 1’s have not kept it a secret they wish to eliminate the conductor’s position on trains. You wouldn’t have to be a rocket scientist to question the advisability of leaving an existing job and taking one where your employer has stated a clear goal to eliminate the position. And as long as the railroads – NS included – continue to employ archaic disciplinary and attendance policies I can’t imagine anyone wanting to enter TE&Y service on a Class 1.

  4. I think todays job seekers want a lot of money to do little work and do it M-F Finding out they will possibly work off and on 24/7 with no regular schedule is not what they signed up for or really expected.

  5. This is fantastic news! More record everything! Record profits, record low operating ratio, etc. Great, now NS & the other railroads can afford to give their employees generous wage increases & pay for all of their healthcare expenses; they can afford it right? Maybe they will finally pay their employees additional compensation for working so hard through the pandemic? I mean, they say how much they appreciate them and all right?

  6. “…go teams…” We call that booming! A few didn’t mind going hundreds of miles to a place they’ve never been where they don’t know anyone to work for weeks or months because the pay was so good.

    At least the NS guy wasn’t like the CSX guy saying rails ENJOYED working in all kinds of weather! I don’t think there’s too many who ENJOY being on the ground in pouring down rain when its 90 degrees. (for the uninitiated, it’s debatable which is worse, getting soaked by your own sweat wearing rain gear when its 80 or 90 degrees versus soaked by the pouring rain without the gear) Rails do this and they do it every day not because they like it but because its necessary and it is what they signed up for.

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