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PSR and Arkansas Class 1 Railroads (Letter to the Editor)

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The [April 3] Arkansas Business article on the East Palestine, Ohio, event did not mention precision scheduled railroading (PSR) and tended to leave the reader with the impression that since the Arkansas railroad regulatory authorities are “not running around,” things are fine.

It appears, rather, that two of the three Class I Arkansas freight railroads are using a PSR scheduling method that does not serve our state as well as the BNSF approach, and that presents the same risk profile as the East Palestine-type accident.

“Precision scheduled railroading” is “a concept in freight railroad operations pioneered by E. Hunter Harrison in 1993,” when he was CEO of Illinois Central (Wikipedia, “Precision Scheduled Railroading,” accessed May 16, 2023). The essential point appears to be that PSR trains run on fixed schedules, rather than using earlier concepts like unit trains, hub-and-spoke operations, and individual car switching at hump yards, so that fewer cars and fewer employees are needed.

Per the Arkansas Economic Development Commission, “Arkansas is home to three Class I rail systems: Union Pacific, BNSF Railway and Kansas City Southern Railway” (from Google search, “Arkansas Class I railroads” accessed May 16, 2023). A Class I freight railroad system is one that grosses more than $250 million per year (per Wikipedia, accessed May 16, 2023).

The Rail & Depot website “Railfan and Depo Blog” dated Jan. 26, 2022 (accessed May 16, 2023), states that Union Pacific and Kansas City Southern have adopted PSR, but (significantly) that BNSF has not, and this article emphasizes the benefits that BNSF consequently brings to its customers.

While the Union Pacific “What is Precision Scheduled Railroading?” website (accessed May 16, 2023) suggests that one effect is shorter trains, the Wikipedia article and a recent article in Recycling Today magazine suggest an effect is longer trains. The Recycling Today article, a discussion of the Norfolk Southern East Palestine vinyl chloride release accident on Feb. 3, 2023, undertook a “root cause” analysis and suggested that PSR was a significant factor, in that PSR has resulted in shorter inspection times. A National Public Radio presentation (accessed May 16, 2023) represents that the National Transportation Safety Board identified an overheated wheel bearing failure on the 23rd car (per New York Times article March 6, 2023, the train had 150 cars) as a cause of the accident.

Critics complain that the PSR concept increases short-term earnings but results in deferred maintenance and an inability to build capacity (see, e.g., Freight Waves website, Oct. 15, 2021, article, accessed May 16, 2023).

Accordingly, I respectfully encourage Arkansas Business to share more about PSR and its implications with the readers. The term “PSR” was conspicuously absent from the recent article on East Palestine and Arkansas railroad operations.

A loyal subscriber,
Raymond Towne, Fayetteville

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