Railway Age, January 1992

Stop Demonizing Your Class I

After I wrote my column about a refrigerated boxcar gone astray ("The Taking of Car 12723," September Railway Age), the magazine and I both got a lot of mail saying "me, too." And the war stories started to flow. Clearly, the short line managers were only too happy to report on their personal experiences with the demons who ran their connecting Class Is.

In the wake of that column, short line managers around the country were asked for stories on ways the Class Is helped them win new business or safeguard existing business. Most short line operators had some war stories to get out of the way first. But when they thought about it, they all came up with ways their larger partners took the time and effort to accommodate their needs.

The Morristown (NJ) & Erie has a customer which produces a specialty line of jellies, jams and preserves. Until about a year ago, they only took an occasional car of frozen fruit from their vendors on the west coast. Most of it came by truck. Why? Because railroads, although very cost-competitive, were perceived as totally undependable.

Box cars took anywhere from ten to thirty days to make the trip from California to Northern New Jersey. Ten days wasn't bad and in fact the customer could live with that. But expecting a car in ten days and getting it in thirty was unacceptable. On the other hand, if dependability problems were ironed out, the customer could take a car a week.

At that point, we hooked up with Ike Roberts, Conrail's Perishables Market Manager, and his counterpart at the Southern Pacific, Barbara Newman. Working with Ike and Barbara, we set out to find a way to make the schedules work for our jam producer.

A very generous service window was set up at first: 12 days plus or minus two days. The customer said fine and gave us the order. Barbara then worked as combination traffic cop, cheerleader, and lion tamer, tracking each single car shipment to make sure the strawberries make it to New Jersey on time.

Chalk one up for the Southern Pacific. Thanks to them (and Conrail), 15 of 18 cars shipped over a four-month period made it in the service window and the sixteenth car was a day early. Now the railroads have tightened the time to 11 days. Most arrive within 10 to 12 days, and the rest take nine.

Finally, to help the moves flow without such direct Class I intervention, the customer's traffic department was advised to order the cars via Ogden and was shown how to trace them along the way. In this way, railroads assured the customer's needs were always met, which is essential no matter what service business you're in. Furthermore, expectations are exceeded as a result.

Trouble is, when you exceed expectations, expectations rise. So when a car begins to fall behind schedule, eyebrows are raised and concern sets in. Recently, an operational hiccup early in the move caused a car to stop in the middle of Kansas for a day. This time, Charles Babers, Director of SP Customer Services in Denver, was the contact. He and his customer service folks are a creative lot, and before the afternoon was out the frozen strawberries had been hustled through Herington to make their St. Louis connection to Conrail on time. Chalk up another one for the Southern Pacific.

Onesies, Twosies Make the Difference

Of course, you rarely hear stories about the ten-car-a-day shipper. It's generally the car-a-week or six-car-a-month shippers that get into trouble because the system isn't set up to handle them particularly well. Trouble is, a few car-a-week shippers can have a profound effect on the short line's bottom line.

The frozen fruit experience with the Southern Pacific helped set service standards for a paper customer on the Morristown & Erie. Through a fluke in rate bases, a customer could move specialty papers from Longview, Washington to Succasunna, New Jersey more cheaply in piggybacked trailers than he could in boxcars. The customer preferred boxcars as long as they were dependable and cost-competitive. So the short line, Conrail and the Union Pacific got the tariffs straightened out, put together a service proposal the customer could live with, and put the business back in boxcars where it belonged. Everybody is living happily ever after.

More Happy Endings

Take the case of the wood chip exporter, for example. He wants chips to come in when the ships are at the dock, and the rail connection just wasn't delivering. He could easily shift from east-coast-chips-by-rail to midwest-chips-by-barge. But thanks to a revised Norfolk Southern schedule put in place just to accommodate this move, the business was secured for Norfolk Southern and its short line connection.

Over at CSX, there's a market manager who collaborates with the short line to make proposed contract rates work. When there was a $12-per-car spread between the rail and the truck price, CSX took a nip and a tuck in its revenue requirements and trimmed its price to match its share of the haul. The short line trimmed its price to complete the $12 reduction -- and 2,000 trucks became 500 cars of new business.

Finally, one Conrail trainmaster truly has the interests of his short line connection at heart. He watches the cars move through the yard to make sure all the short line's freight makes it onto the short line's local. Sometimes he even snags cars straight from the through freights, bypassing the hump yard and saving a day. All for those critical onesies and twosies.

These little case histories serve as models for the ways Class Is and short lines can work together for the betterment of the rail network. To be sure, it's only a matter of time before any group of three or more short line managers start swapping horror stories about their connecting Class Is. Once in a while, though, it's good to stop and look at our Class Is. Chances are, we'll be all surprised to find out just how few demons there really are.

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Created July 21, 1995. Send comments to lblanchard@aol.com