Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Off topic: Rail service complaints

Despite the optimistic picture CSX painted at its recent daylong meeting with investment analysts, many of its customers continue to complain to the federal Surface Transportation Board about service issues. Now the STB wants to hear from all six Class I railroads about their service issues and how they plan to solve them.

The letters from the STB to CSX, Norfolk Southern, Union Pacific, Burlington Northern Santa Fe, Kansas City Southern, Canadian Pacific and Canadian National went out March 16. The situation with shippers is described in an article at freightwaves.com.

The STB’s website has links to each letter sent to the railroad CEOs.

If you go down this link, you’ll see letters sent recently to the STB from the American Chemistry Council listing complaints about CSX service.

“While CSX’s January 13 letter to the Board notes ‘a remarkable rate of positive change’ and cites selected service metrics that exceed 2016 levels, few benefits of CSX’s operational changes have actually been realized by its customers. In fact, the vast majority of ACC member responses indicate that current CSX service is worse than it was prior to the implementation of precision railroading,” the letter states.

It continues, “Adding to companies’ frustration, CSX has imposed a number of cost-shifting changes, including cancelling long-term leased track agreements and levying new demurrage and switching fees. … Sadly, many companies fear that paying more for less reflects a ‘new normal’ for CSX service.”

In its own letter to the STB, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers detailed its members' complaints with service from all railroads.

“As a consequence of these service declines, Alliance members have experienced substantial delays getting vehicles to customers. They also they have incurred significant costs to transport to, and store vehicles at, off-site locations, as vehicle inventory has exceeded assembly plant capacity. Certain assembly plants even run the risk of shut down due to lack of plant yard and off-site space. In addition, Alliance members have paid premium freight costs to divert vehicles to alternative transportation modes where possible,” its letter said.

Railroads keep telling analysts that they want to take business away from long-haul trucks, as that is where the long-term market growth is likely to come from. That’s in part because the trucking market is supposed to be tight. But the STB action indicates railroads have their own problems with delivering on their promises.

Odds and ends, 3/20/18

Happy first day of spring, everyone.

# # #

Back about 20 years ago I was talking with a fellow reporter about her previous job. She said soon after she moved to that town, she was assigned to do a story about a community that had been hit by a flood (not one along the Ohio River). Her story was about what an awful thing had happened to these people. A few months later, the community was flooded again and her story was like, wow, what bad luck these folks have had.

A few months later, there was another flood. She wanted to write, but didn't, an article asking why these people aren't smart enough to move out of the flood plain.

In the case of people living along the Ohio River, this article answers part of that question.

“You just deal with it. You’re in your house more than you are out of it and it’s beautiful down here,” he said. “You get the mud in your blood.”

# # #

Marathon Petroleum's marine transportation unit has won an award from the Coast Guard for its environmental improvement  efforts.

# # #

The Washington Post has published an article and a photo essay about infrastructure on the Mississippi River. Some of the photos are pretty good, of course. Three decades ago, that would have been a bigger deal, as people like us didn't have access to media that could reach the masses. Now we do, and new photos of the Ohio River, its bridges and its other infrastructure are posted almost daily. Plus we can search for articles about whatever we're interested in.

It's a matter of searching until you find people whose work you appreciate and want to come back to.

One point about the Post article, and it's very, very picky. It mentions the "mighty Mississippi". TV people here in my part of the Ohio Valley talk about the "mighty Ohio River" constantly. They can't say "Ohio River" without sticking the adjective "mighty" in front of it.

But they never talk about the "almost mighty" Kanawha River, or the not-quite mighty Big Sandy River or the weak Shade River (no offense to Shade River fans; I needed an example) or puny Swan Creek.

It's just a peeve.

# # #

And on another note, I spent part of Sunday afternoon trying to get an artsy picture of flood debris or something from the Ohio River that didn't have a boat, a bridge or a dam in it.

Remnants of a tree and other debris collected at the handrail for steps leading down to the river at Harris Riverfront Park in Huntington, W.Va. A thin layer of mud covered the parking area. Perhaps the city or the park district will remove the mud soon, or they may wait a while in case the river comes up again.

It didn't work. But I did see a good bridge shot that will have to wait for another day. The sun was at the wrong angle in the sky, so I need to get to that spot earlier.