Lean Railroading, Part 2

I came across another encouraging example of how railroads are using lean principles to increase capacity.

            For railroads, capacity is critical. Railroads are increasingly in demand for freight transportation, but building new track is rarely an option – it’s costly and time-consuming.

            I previously wrote about application of lean principles at a rail classification terminal, where trains arriving from ports, for example, are uncoupled and coupled so the cars are directed to their correct ultimate destinations. Lean initiatives speed up the process.

            It seems lean principles are also being used to reduce the time trains spend being refueled, inspected and maintained.

            Union Pacific says its workers have developed their own version of NASCAR pit crews for so-called run-through trains, which have no scheduled stops and no cars being added or removed.

            “We can’t easily build new track, so we’re leveraging lean methodologies to find effective ways to increase our velocity and train through-put,” said Cameron Scott, general superintendent of train services at the company’s North Platte, Nebraska, rail yard.

            Specifically, the number of trains serviced at the yard has increased from 55-60 per day to a recent high of 72. The “dwell” time for each train, which had been from four to eight hours, is now three to 6.5 hours. The long-term goal is the ability to handle an average of 80 trains per day.

            The Union Pacific news release describing this effort did not go into detail on exactly what lean methodologies are being applied. Randy Blackburn, regional vice president, said they involved “standardizing each step of the run-through process,” so it seems that standard work is key (not surprisingly).

            And another news release noted that wireless technology is being used to monitor the health of locomotives remotely to determine and plan for unscheduled repairs or maintenance. This means crews can plan maintenance 24 hours before the locomotives arrive at the yard.

            One encouraging aspect of the effort, according to Union Pacific, is that it was generated the way lean ideas should be generated – by a team of workers. The pit-crew concept was “a result of input from employees in our run-through operations and extensive analysis by members of our continuous improvement team,” Scott said.

            Incidentally, Union Pacific added an unrelated paragraph you don’t normally see in this type of corporate news release: a mention that the company currently has job openings at many locations in 23 states. I guess good rail yard workers are hard to find.


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