Several of North America's big railroads showed sharp increases in intermodal train speeds during the week ending Dec. 5, in some cases rising to levels not seen all year, according to a web site where six of the seven largest rails on the continent voluntarily submit weekly performance data.
The increases reflected only one week of sequential activity. However, any increase is likely to be viewed as positive news for railroads and their intermodal customers, who've jointly suffered through a difficult year in terms of operating metrics such as train velocity and terminal dwell times.
For example, Western carrier Union Pacific Corp. (UP) clocked in at an average of 32.2 miles per hour for its intermodal service for last week, a 2.3 mile-per-hour increase from the prior week. Its chief rival, BNSF Railway Co., reported average intermodal train speeds of 33.9 miles per hour, a 2.5-mile-per-hour increase over the prior week and the Fort Worth, Texas-based railroad's highest reading all year.
In the more densely populated eastern United States, where train speeds are slower, Jacksonville, Fla.-based CSX Corp.'s intermodal velocity hit 28.7 miles per hour, a 1.7 mile-per-hour increase from the prior week and its fastest speed of the year. Rival Norfolk Southern Corp. posted average train speeds of 27.7 miles per hour, its highest level since late May.
Kansas City Southern Railway (KCS), the Kansas railroad that operates a north-south network with extensive service into Mexico, reported steady train speeds with a decline from the prior week. Canadian National Railway Co. (CN), the Montreal-based railroad with U.S. operations, posted intermodal train speeds of 27.7 miles per hour as of the end of last week. CN intermodal speeds have been on a steady decline from the mid-October peak of 30.5 miles per-hour. Calgary-based Canadian Pacific Railway Ltd. does not report into the database.
Three of the four U.S. railroads operating east-west networks, CSX, Norfolk Southern, and BNSF, reported, as of the end of last week, sequential declines in terminal dwell times—the time a train remains stationary in a terminal—taken as an average across each carrier's multiple terminals and service lines. UP, KCS and CN reported week-over-week increases, according to the database.
On balance, the data provides a year-end glimmer of hope that the railroads might have found a way out of the operational morass that has weighed down intermodal service all year. The industry has been buffeted by problems with severe winter weather in the first quarter, port congestion primarily on the West Coast, continuing challenges in executing timely cargo interchanges at the country's main rail chokepoint in Chicago, a shortage of equipment and crews, and surging demand from grain and crude-by-rail traffic that has diverted resources from other products.
Larry Gross, a principal with consultancy FTR Associates who specializes in intermodal, said he was surprised by the magnitude of the week-over-week velocity increases. Like others, Gross had set a low bar for near-term improvements in intermodal service. However, he noted a ramp-up in train speeds during the Thanksgiving week, momentum that continued into the following week.
Gross surmised that the railroads might have taken advantage of the relative slow Thanksgiving period to purge congestion from their collective networks. However, he noted that traffic didn't really diminish despite the holiday. "It's like someone pulled a stopper out of a drain, and all the water (symbolizing congestion) ran out," he said.
Gross, however, remained skeptical about whether the railroads can sustain the improvements, noting few of the operational headwinds have diminished and the rail network is heading into its worst weather of the year. "I'm still in 'show me' mode," he said.