Northeast Freight System: New Crisis Falls Upon A Compromised Network

Editor’s Note

While the Coronavirus lingers as the lens through which all commercial activity must be viewed, ANRP publications will lead with coronavirus-related items that may inform subscibers about effects of the pandemic on our industry.


While the Coronavirus outbreak is afflicting the freight transportation industry primarily from the outside, in terms of sudden changes in trade and finance activity, it seems that we are relatively insulated from it on the human level, thanks to the largely dispersed/dispersable nature of our work, and the hearty nature of railroad personnel.

But the Northeast freight network is vulnerable. Our rail and port networks have been scrambling to overcome the flurry of unexpected challenges and changes that have befallen us since the new year, beginning with the residual effects of the CN strike, continuing to the First Nations blockades, and the Hoosac Tunnel collapse. Add the continual carload decline, the bumpy imposition of PSR, ownership transfer of two major regional lines, a soggy winter, plus the usual mishugas , and the layers of structural stress mount.

For weeks now , certain key tracks have been carrying a multiple of their normal traffic. Equipment has been assigned to extra service. Yards are filled and containers piled. Crews are bouncing between cab and bed; road gangs are running north and south. Customers have adjusted and readjusted. Now, management is dispersed among hundreds of homes. Children are home from school and activities. Routines are upset, lines of communication stretched. And mud season is here.

The coronavirus is known to be particularly dangerous to individuals with compromised immune systems. We should also consider that an already-struggling system may have reduced capability to withstand this new stressor – one that is itself immune to any familiar fix. Patience is the only tool that works.

As of now, northeast traffic remains fairly strong, if only because so many detour miles are being added to so many carloads. It may well wane over the next few weeks, but we must take care not to try the system’s current weakness too hard. The goal for the next month is, above all, to prevent infection of ourselves and of the source of our livelihood.

Embrace the slowdown to triple-check that messages are understood, to care for the equipment and validate instructions, to respond in detail to customers, to secure employees in their work and at home. Apart for now, together forever.