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Home / News & Reviews / News Wire / Union Pacific engineer laments high level of misrouted freight cars

Union Pacific engineer laments high level of misrouted freight cars

By Bill Stephens | July 19, 2022

In letter to federal regulators, engineer claims cars are on sent on their way to reduce terminal dwell figures

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Freight train in valley at dusk
Freight train in valley at dusk
Distributed power on a Union Pacific manifest approaches Henefer, Utah, on June 24, 2015. (Chase Gunnoe)

WASHINGTON — Pressure to reduce terminal dwell figures has prompted some Union Pacific yards to routinely depart trains that include misrouted cars simply to get them moving, a UP engineer alleges in a letter sent to federal regulators.

Michael Lindsey, a veteran engineer based in Pocatello, Idaho, used a train he ran to Nampa, Idaho, over the weekend as an example. Lindsey was at the throttle of North Platte, Neb.-Hinkle, Ore., merchandise train MNPHK15, which had 146 cars — 22 of which were apparently on the wrong train.

“Normally this train consists of mostly manifest traffic bound for the Portland area as well as other destinations in the Pacific Northwest,” Lindsey wrote in a July 18 letter to the Surface Transportation Board. “At Hinkle” — UP’s major hump yard in northeast Oregon — “which is the large hump yard in central Oregon, the train would be switched and cars would be taken further towards their destination. Hinkle is approximately 600 rail miles west of Pocatello and two days transit time. On today’s train, however, cars for several misrouted destinations were placed carelessly throughout the train with seemingly zero regards for the supply chain or customer needs.”

Wayward loads in the consist included cars bound for California, Idaho, Utah, and Wyoming. They were carrying commodities including diesel fuel, automobiles, tallow, and grain.

“Complete disregard was made by the originating terminal in North Platte to correctly block this train to serve our customers and the supply chain. I can only speculate that there was some sort of time metric, surely related to PSR, that required that cars move out of the yard by the cutoff time, regardless of which direction they were heading,” Lindsey wrote, referring to UP’s Precision Scheduled Railroading operating model. “The local management takes a hit on their dwell time and instead of working together for the same team, [it] has become common practice to ‘kick the can down the road’ to the next terminal out of self-preservation of one’s own terminal dwell numbers.”

Before departing Pocatello, westbounds typically pick up a distributed power unit or set out cars in order to tackle 2% grades and remain within the railroad’s guidelines for trailing tonnage limits.

Lindsey’s MNPHK was over the limit by 334 tons, and was ordered to set out the train’s first five cars before departing Pocatello. But since those cars were bound for Portland, the crew asked they could instead set out the train’s last dozen cars, some of which should have stayed in Pocatello.

“It would make the train compliant, save time since we would not have to recharge the air on our entire train, and many of these cars were destined for Pocatello anyway  … Instead, the yard insisted that they had already entered it in the computer the other way around and that we just needed to get it out of town,” Lindsey wrote.

He adds: “This bothers me immensely. I genuinely care about my industry as well as the customers. We as the train crew attempted to prevent this misrouting of customer cars by offering an easier and more efficient solution. Instead, local management cared more about their terminal dwell numbers than they did about delivering this freight to the customers.”

It would likely take a week or more for the wayward cars to ultimately reach their destinations, Lindsey says, noting that hauling them out of route also would waste fuel and capacity.

It’s not unusual for trains to depart yards with a wayward car or two in the consist. It is uncommon, however, for a train to contain 22 cars – or 15% of its entire consist – that are on the wrong train, railroaders say.

Railroads aim to get the right car, in the right block, on the right train and rigorously track their overall data every day. But such “right car, right train” data is not among the metrics reported to federal regulators.

Lindsey told the STB that railroads should be held financially accountable when they mishandle privately owned cars, something shippers have sought recently as railroads have stepped up their use of demurrage charges. He previously wrote to the STB to explain why train crews are leaving railroads and why the Class I systems are having trouble hiring conductors.

A UP spokeswoman says the railroad is reviewing and evaluating Lindsey’s latest filing.

28 thoughts on “Union Pacific engineer laments high level of misrouted freight cars

  1. The sad thing is this is the way all industries in this country operate because everything must be made to feed Wall Street. How many times have you seen examples of what Mr. Lindsey describes in retailing or at a medical office or at an insurance company, too often. Customer service is treated as a cost and so is the last consideration. Its always a pleasant shock when someone on the operational side of an organization goes out of the way to help and especially so when its a manager.

  2. Nothing to do with “Wall Street.”
    Metrics meant to boost stock prices benefit the employees getting stock options and profit sharing incentives.
    Wall Street makes money by trading, investment banking and lending money (margin accounts.)
    Individual stock price variances have no impact on “Wall Street.”
    Now, that doesn’t include hedge funds which are technically apart from the securities industry. Hedge funds are Wall Street customers.

    1. It’s more a question of someone’s future career and employment opportunities on the UP. People really respond to incentives and if the incentive is to just get cars out of the yard they will just get cars out of the yard.

  3. Right car, right train can also be a misleading metric. Car ABCX 1234 arrives a yard and the trip plans calls for the car to go to Train 991 of the 21st, but the yard is humping/switching for 991 of the 20th. Car makes the 20th departure. Right from moving the car, right from avoiding a rehump, right from a dwell, wrong for the metric.

    On corridors that may have multiple outlets a day for traffic between two terminals is it more important to keep the car moving through the network, or make sure it hits the “right” train.

  4. While I don’t certainly condone this type of traffic management, sometimes the best way isn’t always the most direct way. All things considered, railroads need to invest in some real technology that allows more effective traffic management.

    1. Railroads have all the technology they need to route cars to their correct destination’s. That’s not the problem.

  5. To anyone who hasn’t read MR. Lindsey’s letter to the STB, I recommend you take the time to read it. It’s a real eye opener. The link to it is in the 2nd last paragraph of the article.

    1. I read it. It paints a dark picture. I’d be interested to hear the reaction of other readers who are “on the job.”

  6. John Rice has it correct, the railroads need to invest in some major computer technology. If a rather simple computer program can assemble a 1000 piece puzzle in seconds with only shapes and colors given , seems putting a 150 car train together when car type, cargo, weight, destination, date of delivery, handling requirements are all known prior to the freight car being picked up, seems to me it is possible to do. Heck, a good program could even block the cars and put the empties at the back. It only takes good management to bite the bullet and get it done.

    1. They already use such software…only it allows real humans to make alterations and override what the software suggests…as most software rightly should since the computer is not perfect.

      1. The NSA (and Google and Apple) could track the activities of every US citizen (350 million) no problem. Hell, Google can tell me where I have been for the past 10 years if I let it. So if there are people who want to say tracking and managing railcars can’t be done with any level of accuracy or detail, is simply full of hot air. I don’t buy it one bit.

        Amazon has analytics that can not only predict purchasing patterns, but it can also predict how it should be shipping those items when they are transacted and notifies their fleets how to prepare.

        If they can do it, railroads can do it.

  7. You would be surprised at what all can happen to delay or prevent a car getting in to the correct trains unless you work there. Yard masters are responsible for what ever happens that drives up dwell time. Some get fired or demoted when several of these things happen.
    I think one of the main problems is management demanding a very high percentage to leave on time and raising all hell even firing people if delays occur. Extra long trains almost guarantee delays. Not a high percentage of trains arrive on time and that can really mess up train building. The yards were not built to have 180-230 car trains in them so a lot of delay time is because of doubling them or spliting them to a size that can be worked. “Management is never wrong” when it sets all the times to be allotted. And, from what I hear they do not like to admit they goofed and push hard to follow the time they set. And telling a crew to take 10 cars with them that do not belong and are on the end of the train is beyond belief. But it is not the worst goof I have heard of.
    Trains were shorter and more numerous prior to PSR and it appears obvious PSR is part of the problem in delivering freight on time..

    I have never worked in those areas and the information I got came from those who do.

  8. The airline version of PSR would be to fly all 777 airplanes between cities and let passengers wait iI a terminal until enough of them showed up to fill the large plane, then send it on its way. Fewer flights, fewer crew starts, fewer planes needed – just keep the big ones and put the rest in storage. Sweating the assets. How do you think that would go over?

  9. Rail workers throughout the industry are pretty pissed off. Expect a strike–either authorized or wildcat before too long. Then the industry’s woes won’t just be confined to the few of us who read this board but will be front page news.

  10. For me, the funny thing about all of this: when the PSR bug bit and doomed the hump yard en masse I was working through a large hump yard in the Northeast. I asked the tower operator what was so wrong with hump yards? He pointed to a screen upon which was numerous car numbers in several straight columns and differing colors. “See the cars in white?” I recall about ten percent of them as such. “Those are all in the wrong place.” Nice to see PSR fixed that.

  11. Time for another STN report. Every yard has to list the number of mis routed cars leaving their yard. Might wakw up management as well.

  12. he’s absolutely right in what he’s says. all of the class ones routinely do this, just get the cars moving to make it look like terminal dwell is low. we routinely get miss routed cars in our yard. and then we have to send them back. but it make the dwell time look low.

  13. What is the recovery plan under PSR? How do they fix things if there is almost zero capacity left? Meltdown is inevitable.

  14. “A UP spokeswoman says the railroad is reviewing and evaluating Lindsey’s latest filing.”

    And how he can be punished for making it.

    1. That was my first thought, Mark: retaliation for shining a spotlight on mismanagement. Hope we hear from Mr. Lindsey regarding what kind of whistleblower issues he’s faced over his letter.

  15. WOW Someone just now bringing this up. You are correct Brian. I’ve been retired for years and was hired in the 70’s and I saw it done on both Class 1’s I worked for.

  16. NS plays a similar trick at Harrisburg, moving a train out of Enola on to a long siding on the Buffalo line, then waiting for an incoming train to do the switching and block-swapping there. Voila! Less yard dwell time, but no better service.

  17. The industry obviously needs more service competition. It is time to establish a national rail network that is open to any qualified user. Monopoly control of the infrastructure is not serving our nation as it could.

  18. I don’t think UP would dare fire Lindsey. He is already to well known for getting bad operation problems out in the open. I can imagine what the STB would do in such a case.

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