MONTREAL, Que. – Since May 2011, CN has been getting results from some common sense techniques for processing trucks more quickly through its Montreal intermodal terminal (MIT) at Taschereau Yard.
“What we are doing is not all that sexy. It is purely focus,” says Clarke Trolley, assistant general manager, intermodal operations.
There are several ways to measure how quickly CN is moving truckers in and out of its intermodal terminals. The simplest is called “carter turn time,” which is the amount of time a trucker, or carter, spends inside the terminal. In 2010, for example, the average carter turn time was 50.6 minutes, with an average of 889 trucks per day visiting MIT. That sounds fairly reasonable, but what had some truckers upset was the percentage of trucks in 2010 that took more than 60 minutes (21.6%) or more than 90 minutes (8.3%) to get through the yard.
Trolley explains what was going on: “CN was only focusing on carter turn times. In 2011 CN started taking steps to deal with the exceptions: carter turn times of 60 to 90 minutes. Customers say that they don’t want exceptions. They want consistency.”
The new focus resulted from CN deciding to examine how it could improve service to its customers across its business. As Jean-Jacques Ruest, executive vice-president and chief marketing officer of CN put it: “We believe that the issue is ‘What is the problem?’ ‘What is the pain?’”
One pain point was service in CN’s intermodal terminals. In April 2011 Trolley, a second-generation railroader and lifer with the company, set to work.
“The key is to create focus on service in the terminals and capitalize on synergies and best practices across all terminals,” he says. “It is a change in direction from a focus on operational cost control to the upside potential of service that enables growth.”
The improvement in service is noticeable, says Ferris Abraham, executive vice-president of Simard Transport in Lachine. “It is better, there’s no doubt.”
The truck throughput data CN collects show that the new measures are working. In the last half of 2011, only 2.9% of trucks stayed in the yard for over 90 minutes, 11.7% stayed over 60 minutes and the average carter turn time was 41.4 minutes – healthy drops over previous years. In 2012 to date, an average of just 3% of truckers waited more than 90 minutes and in February it dropped to 2% – for an average of just under 3% for 2012 to date – right on target for Trolley’s team.
This is what CN did: When trucks come into the terminal they roll onto a 10,000-ft. long pad adjacent to a track where intermodal containers are loaded and unloaded on or off chassis or rail cars. The pad is divided into quadrants, to which crane operators are assigned.
Each crane operator can see on his computer screen all the trucks and how long they have been there. So, Trolley explains, “Crane operators have been asked to place additional focus on trucks that are there too long. If they are, we send out additional resources to help. We strategically focus on truckers approaching 60 minutes wait to ensure they are served before they reach 90 minutes.”
CN also increased the number of cranes available to operate on the pads. Nominally, seven cranes operate on the pads, but one is usually out for repairs. When CN replaced some of its cranes in 2011, it decided not to pack the old machines off to auction.
“Last year, knowing that we have peaks and lulls in volume, we decided to start strategically keeping the old cranes to help us in the peak season, when there is too much work for the base number of cranes,” Trolley says. Peak season is from fall to spring. An old crane on standby can be put into service for the hours or days when there is heavy action, then put back into storage until the next peak.
CN also started doing more maintenance and repair work on the cranes during the midday and nighttime off-peak hours, which keeps cranes in service when they are needed. CN also added eight more full-time employees at the yard.
On the recordkeeping side, CN started keeping a sharper eye out for truckers who were taking their lunch breaks or catching some zees in the yard. This ensured that the throughput times were telling CN the correct story about its performance.
“We are listening,” Trolley says. “I really have to emphasize that what is driving this continued improvement is listening to our customers and then tactically solving these issues.”