• M/W

Inside the CSX Playbook

Written by Marybeth Luczak, Executive Editor
(CSX Photograph)

(CSX Photograph)

RAILWAY AGE, SEPTEMBER 2023 ISSUE: Running a scheduled railroad and safely meeting customer and infrastructure requirements is a “team sport.”

For high-quality, safe rail service, infrastructure—from rail and ties to ballast and more—must be consistently in a state of good repair. CSX ensures this by keeping its divisions in synch, in terms of planning and technology, to limit out-of-service windows and keep freight moving. The Jacksonville, Fla.-based Class I, with about 20,000 route-miles, will this year invest $1.7 billion out of a total $2.3 billion capital budget in track, bridge and signal projects. From 2017 through 2021, it invested $500 million more on core infrastructure than in the previous five-year period and has continued to increase spending each year. Vice President Engineering Carl Walker and Senior Vice President Transportation Ricky Johnson share CSX’s maintenance-of-way playbook in this Q&A.

Railway Age: How do your divisions work together to ensure track work is accomplished and traffic keeps moving?
Ricky Johnson: It all starts with the way we’re organized—the ONE CSX team—and how integral it is for all our groups to work seamlessly. Carl’s team, our Engineering team, is in the same office at our Jacksonville operations center, so they’re right there with the people who are making the decisions, day-to-day, on track-time issues, tie team work blocks, equipment rental teams, and they’re also part of our daily briefings. The other big thing that drives coordination between our teams is a weekly meeting attended by senior leaders and all planners in Transportation and Engineering, where we discuss the major work blocks for all teams—ties, rail, surfacing. We’re making plans for work locations three, four weeks in advance so that we can get work block lengths right. It’s also about what time work starts, daytime or afternoon or nighttime, where can we maximize the amount of time. And from the Transportation perspective, we look at the natural windows created by our train plan, and there may be adjustments or tweaks to that plan. And because we are a scheduled railroad, we need time, up to 10 days in advance, to make those changes so that the train profiles are in place and all the cars that run on this corridor are scheduled to the appropriate train.
Carl Walker: The most important thing Ricky touched on is constant communication between the teams, and that’s indicative of what we’re trying to build and reinforce here with our ONE CSX culture. The familiarity that I have with Ricky—I’ve worked for him longer than I’ve worked for anyone else in my 24 years at the railroad (Editor’s Note: Prior to his role change in 2023, Johnson was Senior Vice President Engineering and Mechanical)—and the expectations that he set for the group guide us in a way that allows us to work together to be as efficient and as productive as we can, and at the same time, work safely. So the coordination between the various groups are key to our overall success.
Johnson: I’m a 30-year industry veteran and I started within the Engineering department, and one of the falsehoods I believe is out there when people talk about scheduled railroading is that it’s a “cut and burn” and the support departments are not funded correctly. I can tell you the exact opposite—that you cannot run a scheduled railroad without having the best infrastructure in the business. And the funding we have received as a team to improve the condition of our main lines and industry leads where we serve our customers, and our yards, where we process all the cars to serve our customers, has been incredible. That started in 2018. It’s unbelievable the amount of money that we’ve been able to invest in our infrastructure—not only for the safety of our operations and our employees, but also to better serve our customers and give them that reliable product. If you have safety incidents and derailments because you’re not maintaining the track, you can’t serve customers on a daily scheduled basis, and you won’t be able to grow your business. So having that infrastructure and the commitment to maintain it at that level is part of our value proposition. That’s what enables us to deliver the best service in the industry.

RA: Can you share a recent example of how your teams came together quickly to get a job done?
Walker: We experience that quite a bit, where we come together and make things happen. I can give you a recent example of a main line derailment we had in June. We had to get it open as quickly as possible. It occurred in the morning and by evening we were running trains again. It took Ricky’s leadership and involvement from Mechanical, Engineering, Communication and Signals and some key vendors to make that happen. Conference calls and progress updates helped move that along as quickly as possible without further impacting operation of the railroad. So it’s all hands on deck, as we like to say around here, responding with a sense of urgency to make sure that we do not impact customer service, that everyone’s on board with that—from the highest level to the front line—and they know that their input, their involvement is critical to us operating safely and putting the railroad back into service as quickly as we possibly can.
Johnson: A more recent example was on our New England region on the Pan Am Southern property. (Editor’s Note: In 2022, CSX acquired Pan Am, expanding its reach in Connecticut, New York and Massachusetts, while adding Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine to its network. Pan Am had owned and operated a nearly 1,200-mile rail network across New England, with a partial interest in the Pan Am Southern it had jointly owned with Norfolk Southern). We had a lot of congestion, and numerous washouts, floods and track damage. Because of some of the damage from storms and congestion, we reached a point where we had a significant amount of slow orders. They accumulated, and with congestion, track time was very constrained. We were trying to clean up the railroad. Sometimes the field teams don’t see the bigger picture and understand that part of the reason we haven’t been able to clear up congestion is because we’re not giving Engineering enough time to fix the slow orders, and we’re unable to get the trains over the road without using two crews. We had a conference call and came up with a strict train plan, and we lifted 11 of 13 slow orders in two days. That is a perfect example of how you must have all groups come together.

RA: What track maintenance technologies are you using today to maximize out-of-service windows
Johnson: Among the biggest things we do today is our ATAC (Autonomous Track Assessment Cars), which are unmanned geometry cars. We have eight, and we’re able to test our main triangle—Chicago to New York, New York to Jacksonville, and Jacksonville back up to Chicago—with three ATACs. We’re able to test on a frequency of more than once a week. The value is being able to use technology in the background to lay the dataset from a geometry car run, then taking the next geometry car run and laying its dataset on top of it. We still practice the original method of finding a defect and getting an alert. But we’re able to lay that run-over-run data with one of our technology partners, and we’re able to look for “change detection.” Think about traditional maintenance: If it breaks or if it’s a defect, fix it, which is not an ideal maintenance practice. With change detection, we’re able to move into the predictive side and be there before a minor defect escalates. We remediate that problem and perform the maintenance before we have an out-of-service or slow-order condition. And by knowing the exact geographical location, we deploy the right resources and equipment. With time to plan, we can respond very quickly and need less track time.
Walker: We’re testing drone technology in our yards for track inspections. We’re working on the application’s algorithm build-out. We expect that to be in place within the next 12 to 18 months. It’s going to help us take human error out of inspections in some of our critical yards, specifically our major flat yards. We’re also using LiDAR technology to look at clearances, ballast profiles, crossing pavement profiles. Artificial Intelligence is a big development. I’m sure at some point the rail industry will try to take advantage of some of its benefits, like predictive maintenance and improved safety, to increase productivity and efficiency.

RA: How does CSX approach state-of-good repair track maintenance? What are some current and planned projects?
Johnson: We approach maintenance, especially with our big production teams, through use of curfews. We have some on our key corridors called “mega blocks.” There’s a lot of focus and attention from Transportation and our Network Operations and Service Design teams on making sure we’ve got a great train plan that allows us to maximize and give eight- to 10-hour windows. From the Engineering side, if we’re going to put that much effort in these key corridors, we make sure we maximize track time use. We do that with multiple teams, simultaneously. It’s not one tie team doing 40 miles. It could be two or three, with our rail and surfacing team. We’ve been successful in that it really improves our productivity and unit cost and keeps our network in a state of good repair. One significant project involves Pan Am in the New England region and all the work we have done to upgrade those lines. We have a huge opportunity to grow business, and to that the right way and run a scheduled operation, based on our values and commitments to our customers from the ONE CSX perspective, we must improve the infrastructure so that it will be safe and reliable. There’s a lot of work on the entire territory that’s going to continue for the next couple of years as we look to improve the infrastructure’s velocity and reliability.
Walker: Additionally, there’s quite a bit of wayside work. We’ve migrated two of the three former Pan Am districts over to our dispatching system, and we’re planning to install PTC on the line that hosts Amtrak’s Downeaster. When we acquired that property, 12 hot bearing detectors did not have remote connectivity to allow us to monitor them from our network operations center. We immediately started a program to replace and increase them. For spacing, generally, we want a 15-mile average, and we’re installing 18.
Johnson: We needed to add detectors to get to our standard 15-mile average spacing, but it was also about location. Do they protect interchange locations, sensitive areas? We have a water reservoir and other things in New England adjacent to our right-of-way. It was determining, from a risk perspective to the public and the communities we operate in, if they’re in the right location to prevent issues. And our technology is much better. The employees and teams on Pan Am had done an outstanding job of maintaining and working with what they had. But it’s a whole different ball game now, and the enthusiasm and excitement we’re seeing from former Pan Am track time that are now part of our network has been tremendous.

RA: What are your top current and planned capacity improvement projects?
Johnson: The Howard Street Tunnel project is going to be a huge win not only for our company but also for the Port of Baltimore and for the surrounding states. (Editor’s Note: The $466 million project will reconstruct CSX’s almost 130-year-old, 1.7-mile-long freight rail tunnel to accommodate double-stack container trains to and from the Port of Baltimore. It consists of vertical clearance improvements at the tunnel and 21 other locations between Baltimore and Philadelphia. The Howard Street Tunnel will be reconstructed to provide an additional 18 inches of clearance. Three additional bridges in Baltimore also will require superstructure work: the North Avenue bridge will be modified and the Guilford Avenue and Harford Road bridges will be replaced. Other locations in Maryland, Delaware and Pennsylvania will require track lowering beneath the structures. STV and Michael Baker International are providing pre-construction services.) Next year—probably in the second quarter—we’ll get our clearance going north out of Baltimore. The Howard Street Tunnel project is going to take us a couple of years to complete, but we’re progressing on it. We’re really focused on it. As we go into 2024 and 2025, it will be a huge project to get clearance through Baltimore and in other directions. The other big projects involve siding capacity on our Chicago-Jacksonville and New Orleans-Southeast corridors. They’re 75% to 80% complete, and we expected to be done in first-half 2024. We’ve completed and are proud of a new connection on our Brunswick Subdivision—1,500 feet of track and two switches at Nahunta, Ga. Previously, trains originating in Waycross, Ga., going toward Savannah on our Jesup Subdivision were restricted to single track with limited siding space for meets and passes. The Jesup Subdivision connects with the Nahunta Subdivision on our I-95 route or A Line, at Jesup, Ga. The Brunswick Subdivision crosses the Nahunta Subdivision at Nahunta, Ga. Since the Brunswick Sub is routed in the same direction from Waycross to Savannah as the Jesup Sub, building a connection from the Brunswick Sub to the Nahunta Subdivision toward Savannah at Nahunta basically created 30 miles of double track. Now, instead of holding a train headed to Waycross at Jesup for one coming from there, we can run directionally for 30 miles on the three subdivisions. It has really improved our fluidity in the area. No delays from holding trains to meet and pass has been a tremendous improvement for a relatively small investment. Also, when you think about the Chicago-Jacksonville corridor and the traffic we interchange in New Orleans that’s routed through Montgomery headed to Waycross, by adding capacity and increasing siding lengths—which previously averaged 6,000 feet—we now have two routes into Waycross from Birmingham: When traffic from Chicago gets to Birmingham, we can now run through Montgomery, Dothan [Ala.] and Thomasville [Ga.] on the Dothan and Thomasville subdivisions into Waycross, or we can run on our Lineville and Fitzgerald subdivisions [through Manchester, Ga.], a very dense corridor that can get constrained. These two possible routings between Jacksonville and Birmingham through Waycross add capacity to that whole corridor. We’re excited about that. It improves our ability to handle existing business, but also unlocks the growth opportunity for all our customers and in that corridor.

RA: What have been your greatest project challenges?
Johnson: I’ve been in the industry 30 years and it hasn’t changed. The greatest challenge Engineering always faces is track time. That’s why we’re committed to being proactive and having a good plan. Having Service Design, Network Operations, Transportation, both local and field, and Engineering all engaged on the front end and planning for the work, we’re able to execute that plan more reliably. We’re not 100%—nobody will ever be 100% as we work in an outdoor environment with all kind of obstacles—but when you have a plan, you’re able to  adjust it week to week and execute it at a much higher percentage than what you would ever do without having all the players involved in the initial plan, understanding that we can’t run a scheduled railroad without having the proper infrastructure. Understanding that it’s a team sport; it’s not about one department, Transportation or Mechanical or Engineering, prioritizing individual goals, is core to us. There are no silos, because we’ll all fail if one fails. This is not unique to CSX. It’s an industry issue. Inflation is a huge issue, and we’ve had a lot of inflationary pressures from a materials perspective. When you think about the capital side of Engineering and look at cost breakdown, the overwhelming preponderance is material cost. Labor is a small percentage. We’re working with vendors and making sure they understand that this isn’t a one-time purchase for us; we’re buying things every year. It’s about relationships with our suppliers, long-term commitments from us and them, and hopefully we’re starting to see a little bit of easing in inflation. We historically have been consistent in the amount of ties and rail invested in our network. It’s a compliment to our Board of Directors and company that, regardless of the landscape and the business and the economic cycles, we have remained steadfast and committed to putting in the right number of ties and the right amount of rail to ensure that we have the best infrastructure possible.
Walker: I’ll add, and this is not unique to CSX, the challenge of hiring people. We have improved over the past nine to ten months with bringing people on board, but that challenge remains. We also have folks who are retiring or leaving the company for whatever reason, and it seems that influx rate of new employees is not at the same level of people leaving. It’s challenging, getting new hires up to speed with respect to training, and into our culture of working safely and feeling free to say something if they see something unsafe, because we want everyone to go home the same way they came to work. So, the focus on attrition is high and will continue to be over the next year to 18 months.
Johnson: Over the past six months, there’s been a change in people—for us at CSX and people wanting to come to work for us. They feel that there’s something different happening here at CSX with respect to the culture and our ONE CSX initiative. It’s about everybody feeling respected and appreciated and included. When I look at the attrition rates over our departments, Engineering would probably have the lowest. That speaks to Carl and his leadership as well as the other senior leaders that report to him of driving that ONE CSX message to our employees. We’ve got a way to go, but I’m excited about our ONE CSX culture initiative and the excitement it’s bringing, not just to the senior leaders or the people in Jacksonville. You see and feel it when you’re out on the ballast line walking and talking to the employees. There’s a sense of excitement. It’s contagious, and it will improve us and make us a stronger company. Our No. 1 goal is that it starts at the top with Joe Hinrichs, our CEO, and through the executive team and all the way down through all levels. It’s a team sport; we all have voices and they’re going to be heard. At the end of the day, we will make the best decision for all our stakeholders, not for any individual stakeholder. We’re going to make the right decisions for our employees, our owners, our communities and our customers.

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