The Surface Transportation Board (STB) is calling on Norfolk Southern (NS) to address the deterioration of “key operating metrics” over the past several weeks and the increasing number of customer complaints to STB about the Class I railroad’s “poor performance.”
In a Nov. 23 letter submitted to NS Chairman, President and CEO James A. Squires (download below), STB Chairman Martin J. Oberman wrote that NS’s recent key operating metrics “are hovering far below 2019 comparables.” For the second reporting week of November 2021 vs. the same period in 2019, he noted a “marked decline” in average train speed for manifest service. This, he wrote, is “particularly troubling given the focus on the manifest network in NSR’s [NS’s] precision scheduled railroading operating model.” He also noted an increase in average system dwell time and in average number of manifest trains holding per day.
“These metrics reflect an unfavorable trend in NSR’s overall performance in 2021,” Oberman wrote. “Yet, NSR’s number of ‘transportation’ employees has continued to decline over the last three months (8,281, 8,269, and 8,207, respectively). …”
At the same time, STB has received an “increasing number” of NS customer complaints, which include “missed switches, cars stranded at intermediate yards, longer transit times, operating plan changes without notice, and a lack of communications from customer service,” according to Oberman. He wrote that the customers—from NS’s Cincinnati to Chattanooga corridor as well as the deep South and mid-Atlantic—represent a “cross-section of key commodity groups.” The rail service disruptions, he added, “have caused customers to incur additional costs, typically without compensation from NSR.”
For these reasons, Oberman asked Squires to provide the STB 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.
“It would be most helpful if you could provide this review as a follow up to your letter to me dated June 18, 2021, in which you outlined a ‘program of targeted hiring’ to meet workforce needs, referenced measures to attract and retain operating employees, including through financial incentives, and forecasted the number of conductor trainees you anticipated onboarding through 2021. In light of the declining employee headcount since June as shown by the data supplied to the STB, your program does not appear to have succeeded in obtaining a workforce level sufficient to avoid the service challenges described above. Please detail any adjustments NSR has made in the intervening time, and any modifications or additional efforts NSR intends to make in the future to increase its overall operating headcount against attrition.
“I take the problems involving NSR’s service with the utmost seriousness and look forward to their resolution in the shortest possible time as the Nation’s economy continues its rebuilding efforts while recovering from the effects of the pandemic.”
In an Oct. 24 statement to Railway Age, NS said: “We are in regular communication with Chairman Oberman and the STB, and look forward to responding to his letter. Restoring our service levels is our highest priority, and we are working around the clock to communicate with our customers to provide as much visibility into operations as possible while we work to accomplish this.”
STB on Oct. 18 sent a similar letter to CSX President and CEO Jim Foote, requesting information about service problems, as evidenced by what STB characterized as numerous customer complaints. CSX responded on Nov. 2. Read: “CSX to STB: ‘Committed to Overcoming Supply Chain Challenges.’”