Norfolk Southern’s intermodal service offers vital supply-chain link for medical shipments
In Norfolk Southern’s intermodal business, a “hot” shipment demands everybody’s attention. In these days of COVID-19, some of this time-sensitive freight moves with a new urgency – to help save lives.
Since late March, our railroad’s intermodal customer service team has been on the front lines of NS efforts to speed the transport of medical supplies going to companies that make ventilators and other equipment being used in the fight against COVID-19.
In a tightly run operation, NS is collaborating with one of our largest international intermodal customers, Ocean Network Express, or ONE, to move these supplies by rail from East Coast port terminals to NS intermodal facilities in Pittsburgh, Chicago, and Atlanta – and from there by truck to the manufacturing companies.
“Everybody at NS has worked together to make this a success – customer service, transportation, intermodal operations, and marketing,” said Ray White, NS assistant manager intermodal customer service. “Really, it’s just about communication, teamwork, and having a great network where everything moves seamlessly.”
Going above and beyond for the customer
As ONE’s point person at NS to troubleshoot service issues, White coordinates with NS transportation and intermodal operations to flag the shipments as high-priority, or “hot,” while keeping ONE updated as these containers move across the railroad’s network.
As many as four to five high-priority medical shipments a week have been coming to NS from ONE at East Coast ports. According to a ONE representative, the railroad has “absolutely” gone above and beyond to expedite these shipments.
“From the top to the bottom on this entire operation, I would say NS has knocked it out of the park,” said Chicago-based Mark Endres, ONE’s manager East Coast and Gulf Port rail operations. “Everybody’s been timely in their response, and everything has been flowing smoothly. The goods have been there, and the needs of our customers have been met.”
ONE, with global headquarters in Singapore, is ferrying most of these supplies from China to the Port of New York and New Jersey. Roughly 95% of these shipments, according to Endres, are then moved by rail to NS’ Pittsburgh Intermodal Facility. From there, truckers transport the supplies to a company that manufactures medical equipment critical for COVID-19 patient care.
A sense of urgency
Many of these containers, Endres said, already were on ONE ocean carriers steaming to the East Coast when COVID-19 outbreaks created an urgent need for medical supplies, including ventilators and personal protective equipment for health-care workers. ONE responded by flagging the containers for high-priority delivery when they reached the port.
“We’re happy to have the opportunity to help,” Endres said. “From somebody sitting at home on the sidelines, like a lot of us are, it’s been nice to be a part of something to facilitate the need for somebody, somewhere around this nation.”
At NS, White, ONE’s customer service contact, usually is notified about 48 hours before these shipments are scheduled to land at the port. When a container arrives and is released to NS, White moves into action.
“Once we have it in our possession, we alert ONE and then begin our tracing and tracking,” White said.
As the Pittsburgh-bound containers depart the port, White sends an alert to Tim Morris, manager of NS’ Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, intermodal facility, who sets his team into motion. In Harrisburg, the containers are transferred to a connecting train that takes them into Pittsburgh.
“We know how important these shipments are,” Morris said. “When we know they’re coming in, we have a yard crew pretty much on standby to get these connections shifted onto the outbound train to Pittsburgh. Knowing this is life-saving equipment, it heightens our awareness to do our jobs even better to make sure these cars make the right train.”
The containers get the same special treatment in Pittsburgh, said J.J. Ciufo, programmer with Pacific Rail Services, which manages the intermodal facility for NS.
“When we’re informed that medical supply shipments are en route to us, we make certain to have good-order chassis at the ready for those units,” Ciufo said. “Once the train arrives and is placed on our unloading pads, we make it a priority to unload those containers first. We expedite our whole grounding process around those medical hot shipments.”
From there, the containers are trucked over the road for final delivery to ONE’s customer.
Pride in getting the job done
In NS marketing, Brad Garbert, market manager intermodal and ONE’s sales account manager, praised White for the “great care” he has given the medical shipments.
“From attention to detail to his anticipation of the customer’s needs, he’s just provided excellent service,” Garbert said.
As part of NS’ efforts to improve and transform service, White said he is proactive in keeping ONE informed about the status of its medical shipments. Working with ONE to ensure timely delivery of supplies essential to the well-being of our communities is personally rewarding, White added.
“Being part of a situation where you’re helping something bigger than yourself does bring a sense of pride,” White said. “To know you’re doing your part the best way you can in helping someone else is a great feeling.”