May 20, 2020

More than four months into the worst pandemic to strike the United States in a century, the nation is experiencing hotspots even as the virus subsides in other regional epicenters.

As the virus spreads throughout the nation, it creates the need to shift essential supplies and products to where they are required most. The ability to respond to rapidly changing demands is a hallmark of U.S. freight railroads. In this capacity, the nation’s freight railroads and rail workers provide a critical — yet often unseen and unsung — service to ensure continued delivery of essential goods needed for human health and safety.

One prime example is the need to protect health care workers on the front lines of treating pandemic patients. That need is likely to increase at times in certain areas in conjunction with the eruption of new regional hotspots. Freight railroads are playing an important role by transporting the essential raw materials to manufacturers of protective gear for frontline hospital staff.

BSNF worked closely with Advanced Extrusion in Rogers, Minnesota, which supplies plastic to manufacturers of essential protective products. The manufacturing process for much of the equipment starts with Polyethylene Terephthalate or PET resin, which is transported by freight rail in pellet form. Just one BNSF railcar of plastic pellets can be transformed into thousands of face shields to protect health care workers.

“We started getting calls from all around the country from people looking for this material, which can be used for face shields,” says Advance Extrusion’s Ryan Kemmetmueller. “So, we’re cutting into our normal orders to get these expedited.” The spiraling demand necessitated a quick pivot by BNSF to ramp up pellet deliveries and prioritize them from across its network, with BNSF’s trainmasters regularly calling and texting company officials with updates on the status of those deliveries.

Canadian Pacific’s (CP) network, which straddles the U.S. and Canada border was tapped by key manufacturers to accommodate spiking demand for essential supplies. “Shipping demand is strong for food and essential products, grain and fertilizers,” the company said in a notice to its customers. “The 13,000-strong CP family is working diligently to keep our customers’ supply chains moving effectively and efficiently.”

At the same time, in the throes of the national emergency Union Pacific has worked closely with chemical giant Dow, which supplies vital products needed for antiseptics; disinfectants; personal protective equipment, like medical gowns, caps and drapes, and gloves; and detergents for laundry cleaning.

“Every day, Union Pacific delivers rail cars into our facilities, and we fill them with products that are critical to our customers’ supply chains,” said Dow North American Rail Service Leader Mike Gebo. “This consistency of rail service is extremely important to ensure uninterrupted supply.”

The nation’s freight railroad system comprises 140,000 miles of track that are quite literally the lifeline for many regions of the nation that are experiencing the worst of the pandemic. They are transporting many of the goods necessary to respond to the pandemic and maintain a semblance of normalcy in American life, including:

  • Chemicals for medicines and food packaging.
  • Medical supplies such as masks and ventilators.
  • Chlorine-based disinfectants for treating water.
  • Energy products for generating electricity.
  • Food products, as well as grain and corn for livestock.
  • Retail products that end up on store shelves, such as toilet paper and cleaning supplies.

Even amid the ongoing national emergency, as hotspots rise and fall and rise elsewhere, freight railroads and the positive impact they have are ever-present.

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