Freight railroads further adjust workforce plans amid coronavirus pandemic

A photograph of two train locomotives.

The freight railroads are monitoring the latest developments related to the coronavirus pandemic while adjusting working conditions and preparing for an anticipated surge in volumes once the outbreak subsides, according to recent operations notifications.

Norfolk Southern (NYSE: NSC) changed some of its work procedures from even a few days ago, aligning them with social distancing guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), according to a March 14 note from its chief marketing officer Alan Shaw. Some of the changes include transitioning work arrangements for those not directly associated with train operations and restricting access to critical functions to offices such as the Network Operations Center. 

The eastern U.S. railroad has also activated its Operations Command Center, which includes staff from marketing and customer service, to monitor operations. It is also ensuring proper sanitation for its field transportation employees. 

In regard to shippers, “Norfolk Southern is committed to providing transparent information on all our activities and any changes we may execute,” Shaw said. “We encourage you to advise us with respect to anticipated changes in your supply chains, operations or priorities so that we can continue to evaluate and, if necessary, modify our operating plans accordingly to meet your service expectations.”

Canadian National (NYSE: CNI) said its intermodal offering can aid customers that are affected by the dwindling availability of truck drivers.

“Since our recovery from the illegal blockades is progressing well, we are working closely with our customers to further assist them in getting more of their goods to end markets as Canadian National’s (CN) strong intermodal capacity can definitely increase to compensate for the diminishing availability of long-haul truck drivers,” CN said.

The railway also said it is following safety directives from the World Health Organization and from provincial, state and federal authorities in Canada and the U.S.

In a March 13 customer update, BNSF (NYSE: BRK) said it has plans to keep operations going should there be any workforce disruptions, including those caused by a pandemic. Measures will include designating essential personnel and ensuring that there are train crews available to keep trains moving. All BNSF facilities remain open, the railroad said.

BNSF asked customers to share information with BNSF about its needs, especially once volumes rebound as the pandemic threat fades.

“Once conditions have improved, we are aware of concerns about the ability to support a spike in volumes involving North American supply chains. BNSF is working closely with our partners to ensure that resources are positioned where they will be needed most,” BNSF said. “In this effort, we would like to remind customers to please share information on anticipated volumes with your BNSF representative as frequently as possible. With your ongoing collaboration, we are confident that we have the equipment, facilities and other resources ready to handle an expected demand surge in the coming weeks.”

The railroad also said it is following guidelines provided by the CDC and public health agencies, and it is taking measures such as cleaning and sanitizing BNSF facilities more frequently and restricting employee travel. 

All of these customer notifications from the freight railroads come as the Federal Railroad Administration on March 14 said the coronavirus poses a risk of serious illness that constitutes an “emergency situation” as related to railroad operations. As a result, emergency relief provisions are in effect.