Freight railroads monitor network for coronavirus impacts

A photograph of a train nearing a rail yard.

Freight railroads are alerting customers of their plans to address the coronavirus in North America, and they urged their customers to notify them if their supply chain changes.

Norfolk Southern (NYSE: NSC) says it’s taking steps to prevent the spread of the coronavirus across its rail network, including ensuring safe workplaces, studying remote work options for some employees and creating a task force to address the situation, the company said in an operations notice to its customers.

“Contingency planning is ongoing. We are focused most acutely on mission-critical functions,

including transportation planning and operations, customer service, equipment management, train reporting and work orders, ensuring we have plans in place to maintain adequate staffing and a safe, effective work environment,” Norfolk Southern (NS) chief marketing officer Alan Shaw said in a March 12 operations note.

Those measures include ensuring that all workplaces are stocked with cleaning and disinfecting products, modifying work areas to allow for additional spatial separation and tasking NS’s chief medical officer to monitor guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

NS is also preparing its employees, systems and communication infrastructure to work remotely when applicable and should the need arise, the company said. The railroad has formed a Pandemic Planning Task Force consisting of representatives of all departments to review internal work group contingency plans and procedures.

The eastern U.S. railroad also urged customers to notify it of any changes or disruptions to their supply chains or operations.

“Should the need arise, we are preparing to activate our Command Center, staffed by all areas essential to train operations. I commit to you that we will make certain we communicate all changes to you, our customers and supply chain partners, as we move forward,” Shaw said. “In turn, we encourage you to advise us with respect to anticipated changes in your supply chains so that we can continue to evaluate and, if necessary, modify our operating plans accordingly to meet your service expectations.”

Union Pacific (NYSE: UNP) said in a March 6 customer update that it has been actively monitoring the situation, and it is following CDC guidelines for businesses. The western U.S. railroad developed a cross-departmental pandemic team in 2006 that developed business continuity plans. 

Union Pacific (UP) has put into place a pandemic operating plan that includes a Command Center to ensure continued train operations. The team at the center is responsible for transportation plan adjustments, traffic diversions and equipment planning, and it will ensure communication protocols between customers and operating and support staff, said Kenny Rocker, UP’s executive vice president for marketing and sales.

UP also asked customers to alert the railroad should any changes occur to customers’ supply chains.

“If you are expecting an increase of product imported from China or from a secondary source, such as local suppliers, we would like to keep in close contact as you gain clarity on when your volumes are expected to pick up again. If you are able to let us know the timing and quantity of those anticipated volume levels, we will do our part to be ready to handle the volume when it arrives,” Rocker said. “The more we can understand what your forecasted shipments might look like and when they will happen, the better we can help provide the transportation solutions you need to keep your supply chain running smoothly.”