Helmer at the helm: How NS' director of fuel efficiency moves the environmental needle

“We want to be part of delivering the low-carbon economy,” says Jamie Helmer, director of fuel efficiency for Norfolk Southern Railway, and recipient of the 2022 John H. Chafee Environmental Excellence Award. Norfolk Southern Railway

By Grace Renderman, Associate Editor 

Success doesn’t always mean having a linear career path from point A to point B. Sometimes, it means jumping around from department to department, soaking in skills and life lessons, until you fall into the perfect role, says Jamie Helmer, director of fuel efficiency for Norfolk Southern Railway. 

“I received a very broad view of the company,” she says. “A few jobs later, here I am, the director of fuel efficiency, using that very broad experience to work with pretty much the whole company.” 

Helmer began her NS career in 1996 through a student cooperative program while studying at Virginia Tech. After she graduated, Helmer was hired full-time to work in NS' IT department, then made jumps to quality management and strategic planning amid other departments. Along the way, she worked directly with a handful of operations leaders, supervisors and members of the executive leadership team. 

Eventually, Helmer found herself in the mechanical department — first as an assistant shop manager, then shop manager and, in July 2021, as director of fuel efficiency. 

In her current role, Helmer drives improvements in the Class I’s methods of increasing fuel efficiency through an environmental lens. Since fuel consumption is a big part of the Class I’s carbon footprint, it’s Helmer’s job to move the company needle closer toward NS' sustainability goal. The railroad aims to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions intensity by 42% by 2034 from a baseline year of 2019. The company has already improved locomotive fuel efficiency by 7% since 2019 — equivalent to a reduction of 470,000 metric tons of emissions — according to NS’ 2022 environmental, social and governance report released Aug. 10. 

For her efforts, Helmer last month was awarded the 2022 John H. Chafee Environmental Excellence Award by the Association of American Railroads.  

Named in honor of the late Rhode Island senator, an advocate for environmental causes and the eco-friendly benefits of rail transportation, the annual award recognizes a railroad employee who has demonstrated the highest level of environmental stewardship in the previous year. 

"Jamie Helmer has been a driving force behind Norfolk Southern’s innovative, top-to-bottom approach to reducing its footprint in the near-term and laying the groundwork for even greater advancements into the future," said AAR President and CEO Ian Jefferies in a press release. 

Leading by understanding 

Helmer believes her wide range of experience has helped her become an effective leader: She understands how each role, however small, fits into the bigger picture, she says. For example, she knows just how big the impact of fuel is on the company – not only because it’s monumental to the sustainability cause, but because it’s one of the railroad’s largest expenses. And with the price of fuel skyrocketing in recent months, NS employees understand better than ever the importance of fuel prices and supply. 

“It’s a lot easier for every employee to understand the importance of this [because] they’re seeing it at home if they have a gas- or diesel-based automobile,” Helmer says.  

One initiative Helmer was proud to lead was the creation of a new carbon calculator for NS customers. The calculator uses data gathered by Helmer and her team to help customers estimate their own carbon footprint through shipping by rail with NS compared with shipping via truck. The calculator is backed by data from more than 7 million shipments representing 18 rail-car types and 30 commodities, plus intermodal, according to the NS website. 

The calculator provides a level of detail the railroad didn’t have before, Helmer says. The granularity of each data point has helped the Class I zero in on specific improvements and goals and has changed the way NS calculates its fuel usage, down to the mile. 

Helmer is also responsible for locomotive modernization initiatives. Each year since 2016, NS has modernized more than 100 locomotives, with 1,000 more units to come under current contracts extending to 2025. That has helped the company expand its “energy management” technology — which feeds information about a train’s upcoming move, like the topography and curvature of the track, train length and weight and other operating conditions — allowing longer, heavier trains to run more efficiently, Helmer says. 

Helmer’s team has reduced idling by more than 2,000 hours per locomotive per day, conserving an estimated 2.6 million gallons of fuel, she says.  

“We’re continuing these efforts. These are not one-and-done — they’re year-over-year improvements,” she says. “Both short- and long-term, we’re setting ourselves up for success.” 

Since fuel-related projects come with a “hefty price tag,” a challenge Helmer often faces is identifying the right ones to focus on. For answers, she uses a data-driven approach supported by operations and management teams.  

Helmer came into her current role passionate about environmental conservation and sustainability. She often thinks about her own lifestyle choices when it comes to the companies with whom she does business and which products she buys, even down to the choice of reduced packaging and knowing where her food comes from.  

The entire supply chain is tied together through consumers’ and companies’ sustainability efforts, Helmer says. To meet sustainability goals, every link in the chain must look for opportunities to make improvements. 

“Norfolk Southern and all the Class Is see this as so critical to their path,” Helmer says. “We want to be part of delivering the low-carbon economy.”