By Jeff Stagl, Managing Editor
In September 2010, Jim Bridger resigned as general manager of the New Orleans Public Belt Railroad Co. (NOPB) amid allegations that he used the company’s credit cards and rail cars for personal reasons.
Owned by the city of New Orleans and operated through the Public Belt Railroad Commission, NOPB then was led by an interim general manager for more than two years. During that time, the breach in the public’s trust wasn’t completely repaired and operations grew inefficient as dwell times increased for many stored cars.
City and commission leaders believed the railroad needed a permanent, in-it-for-the-long-haul leader who could run the short line in a professional, efficient, growth-minded and profitable manner.
Enter Jeff Davis, who became NOPB’s new general manager on Jan. 2, 2013. Davis, 41, met certain prerequisites that city and commission officials had placed on GM candidates: knowledge of New Orleans; familiarity with NOPB; short-line and rail operations experience; an understanding of and experience in a government-owned operation; and the potential to serve in the post a long time.
City and commission officials late last year approached Davis about the position. At the time, he was executive vice president and chief operating officer of the South Carolina Public Railways (SCPR), a post he had held since September 2007. A division of the South Carolina Department of Commerce, SCPR operates the Port Utilities Commission of Charleston, Port Terminal Railroad, and East Cooper and Berkeley Railroad.
Davis was very familiar with NOPB, a switching railroad formed in 1904 that operates more than 100 miles of track, serves the Port of New Orleans and owns the Huey P. Long Bridge, which reopened on June 16 following a seven-year, $1.2 billion widening project.
He got to know the short line and city in 2006 while working as a trainmaster for CSX Transportation in New Orleans.
“I always thought the Public Belt was an interesting railroad, with access to six Class Is and a port, and ownership of the Huey Long bridge, which is an amazing asset,” says Davis.
City and commission officials were intrigued by Davis’ knowledge of NOPB’s network, Class I experience (including a stint as CSX’s manager of labor relations) and more than five-year tenure at SCPR, where he at one time was supervisor of mechanical operations. They hired him in late 2012.
Because of the scandal and fallout, the city and commission wanted a “fresh and new perspective for the railroad,” and someone who could help regain the public’s trust, says Davis. But you can’t accomplish that by looking in the rear view mirror, he believes.
“I was looking for ways to take the railroad forward,” says Davis. “I want to expand and grow the railroad. And I want us to do what we do best: switching.”
He first sought to bolster relationships with the port and six Class I partners: BNSF Railway Co., CN, CSX, Kansas City Southern, Norfolk Southern Railway and Union Pacific Railroad. Those business ties loosened a bit due to the scandal and interim leadership period.
NOPB earlier this year created a committee with representatives from various departments that meet with port officials once a month to discuss issues and opportunities, and resolve problems. Previously, only NOPB sales personnel called on the port to address business opportunities.
More open and frequent discussions with Class Is recently prompted the short line’s first-ever crude oil business and frac sand opportunity. BNSF and CN worked with NOPB to begin moving crude oil unit trains to the port, where the oil is transloaded from rail to barges. The partners move one 60- to 80-car unit train per month.
“By the second quarter of 2014, we hope to be moving one 118-car unit train per day,” says Davis, adding that frac sand shipments to the port are targeted to begin in the first quarter.
Davis has other near-term priorities, as well. He aims to make NOPB profitable for the first time since the economic downturn and increase capital spending on infrastructure and equipment. For example, the railroad plans to acquire a tie inserter because wood-tie work now is performed — a bit less efficiently — with a backhoe.
Bolstering safety is on his radar, too. In addition to his rail industry experience, Davis served in several different capacities in the public safety field. He aims to ensure all employees consistently comply with federal regulations, including those stipulated in the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008.
“We want 100 percent compliance 100 percent of the time,” says Davis. “We need to ensure workers make the right decisions whether a supervisor is there or not.”
A little more than six months into his tenure, NOPB is making strides. Overtime is down 48 percent and car-storage dwell time exceeding 24 hours now involves about two-dozen cars instead of the several hundred that was typical in the near past.
Striving to engage the workforce to participate more in day-to-day operations is helping, says Davis.
“We are taking decision making down to the field level to the folks with the boots on the rocks,” he says.
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