Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Norfolk Southern shows the way for short lines

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Norfolk Southern's 30th Anniversary Year was helped along by a blow-out Annual Short Line meeting in Roanoke, Va. More than 200 members of the short line community attended, representing most of the 250 short lines that have direct connections with NS, along with another 140 NS names, including President and CEO Wick Moorman, Chief Operating Officer Mark Manion, and Chief Commercial Officer Don Seale. And I came away feeling a change in the air.

It It was reassuring and encouraging to hear Manion talk about getting 25,000 unionized employees "engaged." The aim is to help them understand the essence of the business and how their job performance affects the business, thus creating a more positive environment: behavior modification thru education. The "Blue Ribbon Special" employee-appreciation trains— 80 employees at a time over their section of the RR—are creating an environment of positive reinforcement and pushing decisions to the field managers on the ground.

NS night locoAVP Shortline Marketing Rob Robinson said NS is committed to making Interline Service Agreements (ISAs) work, and regular short line feedback on schedule adherence is essential. Manion's effort to get the T&E guys "engaged" would seem to play to NS' Local Operating Plan Adherence, and that includes short line interchanges. One thing that might help increase attention to ISA performance would be to include short line time when calculating car-miles per day. Then a short line sitting on cars for a week at a time can see how doing so makes their move non-competitive by boosting the rate to cover its excess car cost in the specific lane.

Now put Manion's quest for operations "engagement" in the context of marketing and business development. It appears to me there are market managers who have yet to develop a feel for how their performance affects the success of the enterprise. It was suggested by one old short line head that NS needs a Short Line 101course for the many market managers new to the RR, especially given the success of Robinson's 250-squared program—250 new cars a year for each of 250 short lines—100,000 new revenue loads since the program began. Maybe we need Blue Ribbon Specials to get the market managers out to see how their markets actually interact w NS.

Drilling down to root causes is a continuing theme. In my one-on-ones with Seale and Robinson, we talked about the need for fact-based discussions. It is my experience that short lines bringing a fact-based discussion to the table will get fair hearings. Those basing their arguments on anecdotes and generalities will, quite properly, not. It goes back to Manion's remarks about the importance of every person touching NS understanding how one's actions can affect business outcomes.

In short, NS gave us myriad clues regarding where they want to take the franchise and how they want to get there. It's up to the short line community to help them make good on the commitments they made and goals they've set.

Roy Blanchard

Roy Blanchard is principal of The Blanchard Company and a Contributing Editor to Railway Age.