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Norfolk Southern Solution Keeps Ford Riding Tall on Rail

Norfolk Southern works with customers to develop innovative solutions to business challenges. Creative thinking by employees in our equipment planning and automotive marketing group provided Ford Motor Company with an economical and sustainable solution for shipping new Transit vans by rail.

Manufactured for North American markets at Ford’s Kansas City Assembly Plant, the Transit is available in low, medium, and high roof heights. Two years ago, as Ford prepared to introduce the next-generation van to U.S. markets, it became apparent that only Transits with low roofs would fit inside the bilevel rail cars the rail industry uses to move automobiles.

Norfolk Southern, which has the largest U.S. rail market share for Transits, worked with Ford engineers on a solution: Raise the middle deck of the bilevel rail cars. Ford now ships the Transits on the more roomy lower level and transports standard-size vehicles, such as the Mustang, Focus, Fusion, and Fiesta, on the top level.

In a Ford company video, Sean Grant, of Ford’s North American Vehicle Logistics group, states that delivering the vans by rail is more economically and environmentally sustainable than moving them in trucks over the highway.

“By modifying these rail cars,” Grant said, “we found a cost-effective, sustainable solution that brings value to the customer.”

“By modifying these rail cars, we found a cost-effective, sustainable solution that brings value to the customer.”

Sean Grant
Ford’s North American Vehicle
Logistics Group

“Customers respect and reward this kind of ingenuity.”

David Lawson,
vice president coal

Bottoms up! — Innovative Rail Car "Retubs" a Sustainable Business Solution

Norfolk Southern’s Top Gon gondola coal cars are getting renewed life on the rails thanks to an employee-driven initiative that is saving the company millions of dollars while meeting customer needs.

The initiative, launched in summer 2014, extends the life of 1980s-built gondola cars that otherwise would be sold for scrap. The Top Gons primarily transport metallurgical coal that domestic and global companies use to make steel.

In a retrofit dubbed the “retub” program, the company is replacing only the gondolas’ bottom panels, two C-shaped sheets of steel known as the “tub.” Since this kind of work had never been done on a large scale, employees at the company’s rail car repair shops in Norfolk, Va., and Portsmouth, Ohio, were challenged to develop a process to perform the job. They delivered: In 2014, the shops retubbed around 1,000 of the Top Gons at a fraction of the $85,000 price tag for a new car.

The retubs contribute to the ease of doing business with Norfolk Southern by ensuring coal cars are readily available. “Customers respect and reward this kind of ingenuity,” said David Lawson, vice president coal.

The retub program shows how employees at Norfolk Southern are integrating sustainable business practices into operations. The new tubs should add 10 to 15 years of use to the cars and forestall the purchase of replacement cars. This extended use offers financial flexibility at a time when the future of U.S. coal faces uncertainties because of abundant global supplies, environmental regulations, and low-priced natural gas.

Culture Change in Action

Employees played a leading role in the Top Gon retub program, contributing to its success and advancing the company’s behavior-based safety program to create more positive working environments.

“There was a time when management decided every step of the work, and employees had no ownership,” said Jim Welch, senior general foreman with 37 years at Norfolk’s 38th Street Car Shop, where gons are retubbed. “Now we’re handing much of the process over to our employees, and they’re coming back to us with a game plan.”

Employees working on the Top Gon program created an assembly-line approach and have used NSight — the Mechanical Department’s version of Lean, a process improvement system — to streamline work, increase productivity, and reduce costs.

Putting Safety First

Employees at the 38th Street and Portsmouth Car Shops have accumulated impressive safety and work records. In 2014, the approximately 116 craft employees at the Portsmouth shop celebrated a safety milestone after reaching 1 million employee-hours of service without a reportable injury. At 38th Street, the shop’s approximately 230 employees in 2014 completed more than six years without a reportable injury.