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June01, 2015

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Page 78 of 87 THE JOURNAL OF COMMERCE 79 LAND LINES TOP 100 IMPORTERS AND EXPORTERS Lawrence J. Gross CASEY AT THE STACK ACCORDING TO THE writer Jimmy Breslin, immortal baseball manager Casey Stengel is reputed to have uttered, "Can't anybody around here play this game," in response to the ineptitude of his team, the New York Mets, during their first year of existence in 1962. Although the problem perhaps isn't of the same magnitude, I'm tempted lately to say the same thing when I review weekly rail and intermodal service statistics. Rail volume has been soft — darn soft — in recent weeks. Overall North American carload volume excluding intermodal has been down 5.6 percent over the last four weeks, meaning the railroads have originated 89,000 fewer carloads this year than last. But what about intermodal growth, you ask? Recent industry announcements highlight the fact that intermodal volume has exceeded that of carload recently. Comparing container and trailer moves with carloads, however, is comparing apples and oranges. Taking the growth in intermodal containers and trailers and translat- ing that into the growth in intermodal platforms reveals that approximately 38,000 more intermodal platforms have moved during the last four weeks than in the same period last year. This reduces the overall defi- cit somewhat to a still considerable 51,000 cars, or 2.2 percent. Since the service meltdown during the winter of 2013-2014, the railroads have reported on their extensive efforts to throw resources at the problem, primarily in the form of crew hiring and new locomotives. These efforts, combined with waning traffic, certainly should have resulted in substantive service improvements. So what do the numbers say? Using the figures published each week by all the Class I railroads except for Canadian Pacific, aver - age intermodal train speed has increased by just 0.4 mph as of the beginning of May, or 1.3 percent versus a year earlier, and remains 6.0 percent behind the speeds achieved at the same time in 2013. The speed of intermodal trains isn't the main issue. Reliability is far more important than speed. But the railroads don't publish intermodal reliability statistics, and experi- ence shows that when speed suffers, reliability follows suit. So we use intermodal speed as a proxy for the quality of intermodal service being provided. The following table provides more data. It compares the aver- age intermodal train speeds for the week ending May 8 with the cor- responding week in previous years: A few obser vat ions: BNSF, which was the epicenter of the ser- vice woes last year, has rebounded strongly. The two western railroads, BNSF and Union Pacific, are run- ning better than the others. The two eastern U.S. Class Is, CSX Transpor- tation and Norfolk Southern, are suffering the most, but Canadian National and Kansas City Southern aren't far behind. KCS is the bigger puzzle because its route structure doesn't even touch Chicago, the epi- center of last year's problems. And the problem isn't isolated to intermodal. Looking at the railroads' other trains and yard operations yields much the same story of perfor- mance, which still generally lags that of two years ago. The mystery is why. The railroads have every incen- tive to improve. Besides the obvious customer-related issues, lower velocity is expensive. It requires the railroads to deploy more crews and locomotives to move the same volume of traffic. But improvement appears to be elusive. Last year's story was one of higher volumes and changing traffic mix. But this year, volume is down. The big 2014 growth drivers that ostensibly helped create the congestion — petro- leum products (crude-by-rail) and crushed stone, sand and gravel (frac sand) are notably absent this year, with a collective 4,600 fewer cars of these commodities being originated over the last few weeks versus 2014. What's wrong? I wish I knew. One lesson drawn from last year is that the railroads needed to main - tain a better surge capacity to handle the unexpected. But the problem appears deeper. The next few months will be instructive. Normally, the railroads are quick to begin cutting back when volume declines. Will railroad executives hold off on trimming operations until service recovers? Or will the pressure of maintaining the near-sacrosanct operating ratio take precedence, leading them to cut resources while service still suffers? If the current downturn in car- load volumes persists, we're going to get a chance to see which railroads really mean it when they say cus- tomer service is important. JOC Lawrence J. Gross is president of Gross Transportation Consulting in Mahwah, New Jersey, and a partner at FTR Transportation Intelligence. A veteran with 34 years in the transportation business, he covers freight transportation, concentrating on the intermodal and trucking sectors from a transportation and equipment perspective. He is a frequent speaker at industry events. Contact him at and follow him on Twitter: @intermodalist. BNSF CN CSX KCS NS UP TOTAL Vs. 2014 6.3% -3.0% 0.8% -5.4% -1.8% -0.3% 1.3% Vs. 2013 3.6% -8.0% -10.5% -9.7% -9.5% -3.2% -6.0%

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