April 30, 2022 - TRA Newswire -

Railroads are having a tough go with supply chain hiccups across the country and Texas is not immune to the consequences.

In a letter to the Surface Transportation Board, Kansas City Southern (KCS) indicated that congestion in the Houston region is an urgent issue and is hurting its cross-border traffic. Much of the mileage to get between South Texas and the Beaumont area is either on BNSF or Union Pacific lines, citing Houston as a major choke point. 

In the STB filing, KCS Vice-President-Operations John F. Orr wrote "To help resolve the Houston congestion problems, KCS has actually offered its crews on several occasions to move BNSF and UP trains that lacked crews off the main line so that KCS trains can pass. We have also moved our interchange with BNSF for some auto traffic from the Robstown/Corpus Christi area to Rosenberg, just west of Houston, so BNSF has to expend fewer crews from their over-taxed crew base. There may be other ways to help resolve the problems in Houston", according to the STB letter.

Orr also stated "KCS objective is to move over its trackage right lines through the Houston complex as quickly as possible. Due to congestion in Houston, however, this has become extremely difficult. Because of congestion in Houston, KCS is currently averaging about one recrew per train moving through Houston. That means that essentially every train that should be able to move between Beaumont and Kendleton with a single crew requires a second, replacement crew to complete the trip due to exhaustion of the first crew’s federally-mandated hours of service". 

Rail carriers continue to report crew shortages and are trying to hire and train new employees as quickly as possible. 

In Washington hearings this week STB Chairman Martin J. Oberman pointed to letters from June 2021 and criticized BNSF and UP for not maintaining enough employees when the anticipated surge in traffic occured.  BNSF CEO Katie Farmer and Union Pacific CEO Lance Fritz both had offered assurances to the STB that crew issues would not be a problem. They now say they are working quickly to hire more employees and bring back stored locomotives.

As KCS' Orr noted "other carriers have made operational changes such as operating longer trains through the Houston area and shifting work from closed yards into the main yards in Houston. These changes have caused their trains to sit on the main line instead of in sidings because they no longer fit in the siding, or to be assembled and broken up on the main line because they are too long to clear the main completely without being split to move into and out of the yard. Similar to our recrew issue, the congestion issues in Houston are having adverse impacts on our transit times. Transit times on the Beaumont-Houston portion of the trackage rights have exceeded the 12 hours on-duty allowed to each train crew by federal law at least half of the months in the past year."   

Orr suggested that the STB grant temporary trackage rights to KCS so it and other railroads could bypass Houston to reach the U.S.-Mexican border at Laredo. At Laredo, KCS is expected to start construction on a second international rail bridge late this year, parallel to its current railway, to help alleviate railroad congestion at the gateway.

Shippers are rail unions have been very vocal over what railroads have implemented in a financial model called "Precision Scheduled Railroading." The PSR model means longer trains. This results in fewer trains with fewer employees needed on the main line, in yards and in local service.

The KCS letter to the STB also noted that faces challenges at its intermodal operations at Wylie, northeast of Dallas. 

"Delays in delivering some shipments to customers from Wylie between the end of February to the first week of April were due to a combination of weather, chassis and driver shortages, a pronounced shift in traffic flows, and employee shortages for our terminal operator, " as stated in Orr's letter. "The Dallas market suffers from both driver and chassis shortages. Driver shortages appear to be due to a tight labor market that many industries are experiencing.providers having brought thousands of chassis into the Dallas market since shortages became critical last November, a shortage of both private and leased chassis persists in the Dallas area. Much of this appears to be due to chassis remaining with the customer days longer than historically has been the case"

KCS said they were forced to embargo some inbound traffic to give the customers and drayage companies a chance to catch up and to work off the backlog of grounded containers. The embargo was in place for less than a month and was lifted when they cleared out the grounded containers. As of April 19, 2022, the container ground stack count at Wylie had been reduced to zero, and KCS said they are again able to strip containers from trains upon arrival and mount them directly on available chassis.

Photo credit: KCS