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BNSF CEO Farmer responds to NGFA service complaints; Sen. Capito asks STB to address rail-car shortage

BNSF President and CEO Katie Farmer
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BNSF Railway Co. President and CEO Katie Farmer last week responded to the National Grain and Feed Association’s letter to the Surface Transportation Board that outlined association members’ concerns about rail service problems with some Class Is, including BNSF.

On March 24, NGFA wrote to STB Chairman Martin Oberman to relay “serious complaints about rail service disruptions” from BNSF and two other Class Is.

NGFA consists of more than 1,000 grain, feed, processing exporting and other grain-related companies that operate facilities that handle U.S. grain and oilseeds.

"The service issues that our member companies are raising indicate that the problem is a network problem affecting entire regions of the country," NGFA President and CEO Michael Seyfert wrote to Oberman.

NFGA members understand that a variety of circumstances have contributed to rail service disruptions, “but we believe the impact is much more drastic and prolonged due to rail carrier decisions to overly adopt certain principles of precision scheduled railroading and due to significant reductions in crew numbers,” Seyfert wrote.

“The ability to recover when normal rail operations are stressed has decreased significantly in the era of precision scheduled railroading and reduced crews, and rail customers and our nation’s supply chains are negatively impacted,” he added.

In her response, Farmer stated BNSF has addressed the issues raised by NFGA in various forums with its members in recent months and will again in detail.

Her letter also explained the “aggressive measures” the railroad is taking to restore service “to our historic levels.”

BNSF’s plan addresses three key operating components affecting service: crew availability, locomotive availability and car inventory.

Regarding crews, BNSF plans to hire an additional 1,000 train, yard and engine (TY&E) employees this year. The railroad is on pace to meet that target, and has 300 TY&E employees in training, with additional classes scheduled to start during the year. Systemwide, BNSF now has 450 TY&E employees on furlough, which is down from the 3,000 furloughs at the start of last year. All TY&E furloughed employees in the key grain destination regions of the Pacific Northwest and California have been recalled, and a new attendance policy was implemented in February.

Regarding locomotive availability, BNSF has activated locomotives from its reserve, added 250 locomotives to its active fleet and plan to add another 100 units, Farmer wrote. Also, the Class I has increased its resources at its locomotive shops to beef up maintenance and repair.

Regarding car inventory, BNSF is working with customers to better manage active car inventory on the network.

"While this measure may cause short-term capacity adjustments for some shippers, the long-term benefit of quicker network recovery and improved fluidity and velocity will be felt across the network," she wrote. "We are working with individual shippers to identify unproductive rail cars and implement pipeline management best practices to help in this effort."

Some key service metrics already have improved since early March, when BNSF implemented its plan, Farmer’s letter stated. Additionally, the railroad increased to weekly network updates to customers, she said.

Meanwhile, U.S. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.V.) last week asked the STB to look into a rail-car shortage that’s adding to the nation’s supply-chain challenges.

"Since the crisis has stalled goods across the supply chain, importers have incurred increasing charges (on) the use of containers while (exporters) have struggled to find containers available," Capito wrote in a March 29 letter to the board. "The congestion of freight movement has impacted my home state of West Virginia in shipping coal. As a result, the rail-car shortages have resulted in shipment cancellations or delays."

Contact Progressive Railroading editorial staff.

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