Norfolk Southern organizes a 'team of teams' to solve shipper's dilemma

Norfolk Southern Marketing team members assess a new transportation solution for a customer. Norfolk Southern Railway

By Julie Sneider, Senior Editor 

When a paper and packaging company earlier this year faced an infrastructure challenge that prevented it from shipping by rail, Norfolk Southern Railway stepped in to help the customer find a solution. 

The customer — a major shipper for NS — wanted to use the full capacity of a 60-foot-high cube box car to serve a facility. The ability to use the large box car would allow for nearly an entire truck’s worth of additional freight rail. 

But height restrictions in the Northeast due to Amtrak catenary wires along the rail route meant the preference to ship by rail wouldn’t be possible. Or so the packaging company thought.  

To address the dilemma, NS pulled together a cross-section of 10 teams — including Rail Integrated Solutions, Industrial Products–Agriculture, Forests and Consumer Products, Triple Crown Services, Network Planning and Operations, Modalgistics, and First and Final Mile Markets. In talking with officials at the packaging company, the NS teams recognized a need for variations of warehousing and cross-dock solutions to serve additional customer locations where rail service isn’t a first or last mile option. 

Each NS member of this “team of teams” played a key role in coming up with the solution that met the packaging company’s needs, says Stefan Loeb, who joined NS earlier this year as vice president of First and Final Markets. The project also required the renovation of a warehouse at the NS Thoroughbred Bulk Transfer terminal in Elizabeth, New Jersey, to be able to handle the commodity on a cross-dock basis, Loeb says.  

The TBT team collaborated with the customer’s subject matter experts and RSI Logistics, the Elizabeth TBT operator, to determine the warehouse improvements and equipment that were necessary. The team sourced contractors to upgrade the facility to meet the customer’s specifications and ensure safe handling of freight, according to a report on the NS website. 

Stefan Loeb “Customers are always challenging railroads to be more creative.” — Stefan Loeb Norfolk Southern Railway

Including the warehouse project, it took about three months to design a final transportation solution that uses rail and some trucking for the first-last mile where needed, Loeb says. 

The initiative will introduce an additional 156 box cars and 624 supporting trucks for final mile delivery. The solution is expected to reduce the packaging company’s carbon emissions by an anticipated 1,935 metric tons over time, according to NS. 

“You get the environmental kick of using Norfolk Southern and you have one point of contact for tracking and tracing how the load is progressing” on the journey to its final destination, Loeb says. 

The solution that the NS teams came up with for the customer marked the Class I’s first foray into a full truckload cross-docking solution. 

Creating that team of teams is an example of NS’ strategy of finding “a better way forward” for serving rail customers, explains Loeb. The Class I tapped into the approach recommended by retired U.S. Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal in his book, “Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World.”  

The book details the approach McChrystal used in the Middle East when he led the Joint Special Operations Task Force. When McChrystal took command in 2004, he realized conventional military tactics wouldn’t work in fighting Al Qaeda and its network of terrorists. The book addresses how an organization “stuck in its ways with various siloed approaches” can evolve into a stronger team by incorporating everyone’s ideas to make fast decisions and use collaborative responses to challenges, Loeb says. 

NS has since used the tactic for two additional customers.  

Loeb sees the NS First and Final Mile department as an all-in-one “solutions provider” for customers.  

“Customers are always challenging railroads to be more creative. That's why Norfolk Southern created its First and Final Mile department,” Loeb says. “We are providing the solutions. And customers are always changing. … If we don't have what they're offering, the question then becomes how do we offer it, or how do we partner with strategic partners that can help provide it with us for the customer to win flexible freight.”