Average intermodal train velocities improved by 1.2 mph compared to last week while dwell times were flat, but those numbers don’t capture the full reality of the service as experienced by shippers.

 

Railroads adjust equipment fleets, power and crew starts to maintain operating leverage in response to rising and falling freight demand. When demand pulls back, railroads cut costs more aggressively, and when demand returns, railroads add costs back more cautiously.

 

The relative balance of demand and capacity in railroad networks affects self-reported service metrics. But the traditional service metrics — train velocity and terminal dwell — are limited because they reflect the railroads’ asset utilization more directly than they reflect customer experience. There are also trade-offs or choices that can be made between improving velocity or dwell that can affect service metrics without affecting the quality of service experienced by customers.

 

Trip plan compliance, introduced by CSX in 2019 and subsequently adopted by Union Pacific, is a step forward; so is Norfolk Southern’s Service Delivery Index. Those metrics, which track on-time performance at the individual car level, have demonstrated why network simplification is necessary. (A trip moving across 6 yards with a 97% success rate at each yard will have 83% trip plan compliance; reduce the number to 3 yards and the network achieves a 91% trip plan compliance.)

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