Operational changes helped railcars move faster, says Union Pacific report

A photograph of a train locomotive by a buidling.

Converting more hump yards to flat switching has reduced the time a railcar is at a rail yard, Union Pacific (NYSE: UNP) said in its 2019 sustainability report released May 28.

Union Pacific (UP) uses hump yards to sort railcars in such a way that blocks of cars are consolidated based on common destinations, the report said. Flat switching results in the same outcome but maintenance costs are much less, according to UP.

“Each time a car touches a [hump] yard, it adds about 24 hours to its journey. The key to an efficient network is ensuring cars stop only when and where they need to. When a hump yard’s inbound traffic is reduced, it becomes more cost-effective for the yard to flat switch,” UP said. 

To convert a hump yard to flat switching, inbound cars bypass the hump and a switch crew sorts the cars. Modeling software simulates the transportation plan changes and provides visuals on how many additional cars flow into a terminal and how long the trains will be that come out of those terminals, UP said. The software also helps the rail workers understand impacts on mileage, transit time and train starts. 

UP has converted hump yards to flat switching at Pine Bluff, Arkansas; Proviso, Illinois; and Hinkle, Oregon. The railroad also stopped humping cars in Kansas City, Kansas, and Fort Worth, Texas. 

The changes are part of UP’s wider plan to deploy Unified Plan 2020, the railroad’s version of precision scheduled railroading, an operating model aimed at streamline operations. UP describes the change as shifting its focus of operations from moving trains to moving cars, which in turn helps to increase car velocity, minimize car dwell and use or improve the utilization of train crews and assets, according to the railroad. UP also says it aims to increase train size, which in turn would enable the railroad to use less fuel and reduce overall greenhouse gas emissions.

Projects to add capacity

UP’s capital investments program in 2019 totaled $3.2 billion. One of the projects last year entailed constructing five new siding extensions on the Sunset Route between Los Angeles and points in Arizona and New Mexico. The extensions, averaging 7,000-7,500 feet in length, will help UP accommodate longer trains, UP said. 

Although UP didn’t acquire any new locomotives in 2019 and doesn’t plan to purchase any in 2020, it is modernizing its existing fleet, with nearly 350 high- and low-horsepower locomotives overhauled and rebuilt to meet more stringent emissions standards, UP said. 

Meanwhile, a yard modernization at the Los Angeles Transportation Center Intermodal Facility is also supposed to be finished in the fall of 2020. The multi-million dollar updates include the reconfiguration of thousands of feet of track, which UP says will improve fluidity and capacity and ultimately enable customers to pick up containers faster.

UP is involved in two new logistics parks in Texas, the RCR Hempstead Logistics Park, which opened in northwest Houston in February of this year, and the Maverick Industrial Park in Eagle Pass. The railroad also has a partnership with Iowa Northern Railway, Valor Victoria and Watco. It launched intermodal service last December 2019 at the Butler Intermodal Terminal in Shell Rock, Iowa. 

UP spent approximately $70 million to restore railroad tracks and bridges in Nebraska that were damaged as a result of historic flooding, as well as restore tracks and assets harmed by flooding in Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma.