Union Pacific engineer laments high level of misrouted freight cars

By Bill Stephens for trains.com

In letter to federal regulators, engineer claims cars are on sent on their way to reduce terminal dwell figures

Pressure to reduce terminal dwell figures has prompted some Union Pacific yards to routinely depart trains that include misrouted cars simply to get them moving, a UP engineer alleges in a letter sent to federal regulators.

Michael Lindsey, a veteran engineer based in Pocatello, Idaho, used a train he ran to Nampa, Idaho, over the weekend as an example. Lindsey was at the throttle of North Platte, Neb.-Hinkle, Ore., merchandise train MNPHK15, which had 146 cars — 22 of which were apparently on the wrong train.

“Normally this train consists of mostly manifest traffic bound for the Portland area as well as other destinations in the Pacific Northwest,” Lindsey wrote in a July 18 letter to the Surface Transportation Board. “At Hinkle, which is the large hump yard in central Oregon, the train would be switched and cars would be taken further towards their destination. Hinkle is approximately 600 rail miles west of Pocatello and two days transit time. On today’s train, however, cars for several misrouted destinations were placed carelessly throughout the train with seemingly zero regards for the supply chain or customer needs.”

Wayward loads in the consist included cars bound for California, Idaho, Utah, and Wyoming. They were carrying commodities including diesel fuel, automobiles, tallow, and grain.

“Complete disregard was made by the originating terminal in North Platte to correctly block this train to serve our customers and the supply chain. I can only speculate that there was some sort of time metric, surely related to PSR, that required that cars move out of the yard by the cutoff time, regardless of which direction they were heading,” Lindsey wrote, referring to UP’s Precision Scheduled Railroading operating model. “The local management takes a hit on their dwell time and instead of working together for the same team, [it] has become common practice to ‘kick the can down the road’ to the next terminal out of self-preservation of one’s own terminal dwell numbers.”

Before departing Pocatello, westbounds typically pick up a distributed power unit or set out cars in order to tackle 2% grades and remain within the railroad’s guidelines for trailing tonnage limits.

Lindsey’s MNPHK was over the limit by 334 tons, and was ordered to set out the train’s first five cars before departing Pocatello. But since those cars were bound for Portland, the crew asked they could instead set out the train’s last dozen cars, some of which should have stayed in Pocatello.

“It would make the train compliant, save time since we would not have to recharge the air on our entire train, and many of these cars were destined for Pocatello anyway  … Instead, the yard insisted that they had already entered it in the computer the other way around and that we just needed to get it out of town,” Lindsey wrote.

He adds: “This bothers me immensely. I genuinely care about my industry as well as the customers. We as the train crew attempted to prevent this misrouting of customer cars by offering an easier and more efficient solution. Instead, local management cared more about their terminal dwell numbers than they did about delivering this freight to the customers.”

It would likely take a week or more for the wayward cars to ultimately reach their destinations, Lindsey says, noting that hauling them out of route also would waste fuel and capacity.

It’s not unusual for trains to depart yards with a wayward car or two in the consist. It is uncommon, however, for a train to contain 22 cars – or 15% of its entire consist – that are on the wrong train, railroaders say.

Railroads aim to get the right car, in the right block, on the right train and rigorously track their overall data every day. But such “right car, right train” data is not among the metrics reported to federal regulators.

Lindsey told the STB that railroads should be held financially accountable when they mishandle privately owned cars, something shippers have sought recently as railroads have stepped up their use of demurrage charges. He previously wrote to the STB to explain why train crews are leaving railroads and why the Class I systems are having trouble hiring conductors.

A UP spokeswoman says the railroad is reviewing and evaluating Lindsey’s latest filing.

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