Annual MOW survey: Some freight roads cite pandemic impacts


As part of Progressive Railroading’s 20th annual maintenance-of-way (MOW) survey, freight railroads were asked to address the pandemic’s impact on their programs last year and/or in 2021.

Conducted in February and March, the survey netted a total of 62 responses from both freight and passenger railroads. The collected information was published as MOW Spending Report 2021 in the April issue and will be shared in upcoming freight and transit eBooks.

Although some of the freight respondents said COVID-19 hasn’t significantly impacted their MOW programs, others said it did. Following are responses from six Class Is and nine short-line industry constituents that cite the pandemic’s direct or indirect effects.

Class Is

Norfolk Southern Railway: “There was a reduction in planned units in 2020, and there has been an increased cost to ensure the safety of our employees.”
[Editor’s note: During a virtual Class I chief engineers panel discussion hosted by the National Railroad Construction and Maintenance Association on Jan. 27, NS Vice President of Engineering Ed Boyle said the railroad reduced its 2020 MOW budget by 25%, resulting in the installation of 50 fewer miles of rail and 500,000 fewer ties last year than originally planned.]

NSNorfolk Southern Railway reduced its 2020 MOW budget by 25%, resulting in the installation of 50 fewer miles of rail and 500,000 fewer ties last year than originally planned.Norfolk Southern Railway

BNSF Railway Co.: “At BNSF, we grow with our customers and maintain and expand our infrastructure to meet their needs. With our continued annual investments into our network, we were able to protect service for our existing customers during the pandemic, while still putting ourselves in a position of strength to be able to flex up should an opportunity arise this year.”

CSX: “CSX has taken significant proactive measures to keep its nearly 20,000 employees protected during this unprecedented time. We adhere to CDC guidelines, have established and maintain a Coronavirus Prevention and Response Policy, and disseminate cleaning and sanitation supplies throughout our network. Like other transportation companies, in 2020 CSX faced challenges from both the rising number of COVID cases along with broader supply disruptions from volatile demand, inventory shortages and imbalanced freight flows. In a few locations, we experienced times where a significant portion of our employees were in quarantine, which impacted service levels, the efficient movement of system production teams and materials (e.g., rail, ballasts, ties), as well as our scheduled work windows. There were some positive outcomes, however, including the adjustment in traffic levels improved track availability, which resulted in increased production. In 2021, we will continue to review our operations daily to adjust our staffing, and we are hiring and training new crews to ensure adequate staffing levels are available to maintain and improve our network’s infrastructure.”

CN: “2020 was a year like no other and thanks to CN’s essential workers, we got through it together and kept the economy moving while setting impressive new volume records in key markets. While the recovery remains uneven across the markets CN serves, the company was pleased by the momentum in volume demand that grew during the fourth quarter. Our roadway maintenance program, included in our $3 billion in capital expenditures, will help CN meet the demand and needs of its customers.”

Canadian Pacific: “While COVID-19 impacts were minimal on the MOW side in 2020, across CP we continue to monitor the situation closely and make decisions with the best interests of our employees and communities in mind. Impacts to MOW work were mostly minor budget increases related to additional vehicles, lodging, etc., to maintain COVID-19 protocols.”

Grupo Mexico Transportes (owner of Ferromex, Ferrosur, Florida East Coast Railway and Texas Pacifico Transportation Ltd.): “Production in commodities for raw materials [proved difficult], and there was a delay in the importing process to get materials.”

Regionals/Short Lines

Conrail: “We cut $7.9 million out of our capital program do to the COVID-19 pandemic and postponed work until 2021.”

Iowa Northern Railway Co.: “All MOW capex was put on hold other than bridge replacements, and some MOW staff was furloughed, but all are now recalled.”

IANRIowa Northern Railway completed a new bridge near Dewar, Iowa, late last year.Iowa Northern Railway

New York, Susquehanna & Western Railway: “We reduced our capital program by 50%.”

OmniTRAX Inc.: “Protocols were put in place to protect contractors and employees. We re-invented safety briefings with social distancing, and provided hygiene and PPE equipment. Businesses were restricted from providing goods and services. Project material deliveries affected schedules.”

Palmetto Railways: “We were able to minimize the impacts from the pandemic by implementing practices such as social distancing, splitting crews into smaller groups, and performing the routine sanitization of equipment, tools and vehicles.”

Pioneer Railcorp: “Due to the pandemic, Pioneer saw it necessary to reduce its capital spend by 25%, while maintaining focus on safety sensitive repairs, improvements and regulatory compliance. At this time, there are no plans to reduce the current approved 2021 capital spending program.”

R. J. Corman Railroad Group: “In 2020, travel and budget constraints caused partial project delays, resulting in less than 100% project completion. For 2021, there are no foreseeable effects at this time.”

Texas Pacifico Transportation Ltd.: “More than COVID, we were affected by the oil pricing crisis and the substitution of northern wihte frac sand.”

Vermont Rail System: “A slow production pace with additional PPE and material lead times increased, delaying planned project work.”