NS: Dedicated Auto Rack Pair Wins Back New England Traffic


NS 29E
An NS 29E train of empty autoracks crosses off VRS to CP at Whitehall NY during the Hoosac Tunnel detours in Spring.2020.

20.January, Ayer MA – Norfolk Southern has reportedly won new, large-volume auto transport contracts into Ayer, confirming hints dating back to August.2020. ANRP exclusive sources indicate that current CSX customers Honda, Hyundai, and Ford, among other manufacturers, will be riding NS rails to Mechanicville NY and Ayer MA ramps, and dropping Davisville RI traffic at Gardner MA for the Providence & Worcester.

NS regains dominance

ANRP’s exclusive 14.Dec.2020 report on the sudden shift of ~1600 Fiat-Chrysler (FCA) autoracks to G&W/CN routing (see Davisville-bound Autos Shift from NS to CN/G&W Routing) now seems to have been an extended test of new G&W end-to-end capability to Davisville, and/or a workaround for year-end challenges. According to observers, few if any FCA autoracks have moved on the route in the new year, after the parade in the bottom half of December. In that time, some FCA moves have shown up again on NS. CN/G&W had provided timely handling of the Davisville-bound loaded racks, but it’s hard to square the cost and complexity of routing via three railroads and two border crossings versus a two-line (NS to P&W) domestic haul. It appears that, for now, NS has taken back some of that traffic, and G&W hasn’t nailed down a longer-term contract.

For the dedicated auto rack traffic, NS has rostered 27W – Eastbound and 29E – Westbound, (Those are NOT typos, but formulations of NS’s obscure symbol structure. The “2# ” element denotes 200-series automotive trains, while the third-position letter designation represents some inscrutable formulation of other distinctions, possibly such as district, origin/destination, route, apparently anything other than direction – Ed.)

The first wave of 27W trains, assembled in Buffalo NY or Binghamton, have pulled as many as 80 autoracks to Ayer or Gardner (for Davisville). Early 29E empty trains have originated westbound at Ayer, and picked up more empties at Gardner. These trains have not yet reached daily operation, but are expected to become more regular as January progresses.

CSX pushed aside

Much of NS’s new/reclaimed traffic is drawn off of CSXT and away from the the New England Automotive Gateway in East Brookfield MA. Volumes to the East Brookfield terminal have seen a decline since NS implemented the 27W/29E pair. CSXT and NEAT still retain significant automotive movements.

No player bigger than the game itself

Automotive haulage is a volatile segment. Contracts can be for weeks, months, or years, and performance parameters are very tight, providing easy pretexts for engaging an alternative server. The intense competition highlights the benefit of maintaining a two-railroad option for customers across the New England network, where Pan Am has essentially served as an unwritten third-party operator for both NS and CSXT. It also supports a strong role for the STB, to condone a neutral PAS operator that will maintain competition between CSXT and NS on a single main line.

On the horizon, Tesla has recently shown interest in establishing a New England terminal and may seek competitive options from NS and CSXT to move their autos to market.