Railroads are keeping goods rolling amid COVID-19 pandemic

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While United States motor carriers have received a well-deserved amount of praise over the last six weeks, of the COVID-19 pandemic, by moving freight such as medical supplies, PPE equipment and gear, groceries, and other essential goods, another mode of freight transportation, namely railroads, have also gone above and beyond in helping and aiding Americans in various ways.

That was made clear in the early days of social distancing, sheltering in place, and the temporary closures of businesses and schools, among other major societal cogs, with various Class I railroads pointing to aspects of their respective plans to serve customers and keep goods moving on the nation’s railroad tracks, including:

  • Norfolk Southern’s industrial hygiene group taking early steps to safeguard against shortages by researching various cleaning product brands to identify those effective against COVID-19 and enable NS to place bulk orders of one spray disinfectant in 55-gallon drums before the brand appeared on the CDC’s list of approved products – and well before a surge in demand began creating shortages;
  • BNSF Railway’s Customer Support Center’s ability to escalate time-sensitive shipments whether intermodal, automotive, carload or dimensional, and in the event of a service disruption to a shipment the CSC provides updates until service is restored; and
  • CSX’s focus on business continuity plans to minimize any potential operational impact. These plans include backup facilities where business-critical functions are able to quickly transition and continue seamless train operations, among others

Leadership at the Association of American Railroads (AAR) highlighted the myriad steps freight railroads are taking to ensure railroad carriers are taking the needed and necessary steps to keep freight moving, in a safe and efficient manner.  

“We remain focused on safeguarding the health and safety of the rail workforce as we continue to implement and modify our safety procedures in line with CDC policy,” said Ian Jefferies, President and CEO of the AAR. “Guidance by the federal government recognizing freight rail as essential has been crucial in maintaining operations and continuing to serve our customers and communities across the network. We are unbelievably proud of the work railroaders of all trades are doing to continue to deliver for the American economy and people.”

And John Gray, AARs Senior Vice President for Policy & Economics, explained that managing in en environment of the unknown, by definition, means making decisions without the availability of all the information you would either like or need to have to support those decisions.

“In the case of [COVID-19], this means dealing with unknowns such as the locations and length of time we may need to experience suspended animation with regard to the economy, and which segments of the economy will be most heavily impacted by the disruptions essential to mitigating the spread of the virus,” said Gray.

As for the biggest concerns, regarding COVID-19, the AAR has heard from its member carriers, Gray said that, to date, it is how to protect their workforces from the virus while maintaining safe operations to support customers.

“The problems have been varied, with one of the most basic being to ensure that our employees are able to simply get to work while navigating the maze of state and local shut-down orders,” he said.

What’s more, while freight railroads are front and center in the fight against COVID-19, Thomas L. Farmer, AAR Vice President, Security, explained freight railroads have maintained pandemic illness response plans going back to the immediate aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks and the escalated security concerns with biological attack threat.

“These response plans are a part of a comprehensive approach to preparedness for a range of threats and contingencies, and they are reviewed annually to ensure their sustained viability to meet assessed threats,” said Farmer. “The key components include: primacy of worker safety; early and consistent engagement with government experts; compilations of effective containment and mitigation practices; continuous information sharing; and a need to remain flexible.”

About the Author

Jeff Berman, Group News Editor

Jeff Berman is Group News Editor for Logistics Management, Modern Materials Handling, and Supply Chain Management Review. Jeff works and lives in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, where he covers all aspects of the supply chain, logistics, freight transportation, and materials handling sectors on a daily basis. Contact Jeff Berman


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