Recent polls indicate that an overwhelming majority of Americans — some eight in 10 — favor continuing strict guidelines on sheltering in place. The polling from the Kaiser Family Foundation highlights the vast economic and social disruption rippling from coast-to-coast, with 70% reporting they have not left their homes to visit close family or friends while 67% have not gone into work.
But the polls only provide a glimpse of the staggering impact of the pandemic. In addition to the tragic loss of life, the simple fact is that we are a nation of 335 million people that has ground to an abrupt halt as if a light switch were suddenly turned off. Most people are staying put, with 20% indicating that they do not even leave their homes to shop for food, medicine or other essentials.
This necessary stasis — even as governors have carefully begun a phased-in reopening of their states — is only achievable because of the robust and resilient freight rail industry and its privately funded, 140,000-mile network of rail lines crisscrossing the nation.
Although the pandemic has fundamentally changed daily life, freight railroads continue to provide uninterrupted service, moving the raw materials and finished goods they always have 24/7 across the country. While there are some notable disruptions in the supply chain, such as shortages of toilet paper or disinfectant wipes, the freight railroad network remains healthy and fully operational.
From the outset of the pandemic, railroads as part of the nation’s critical infrastructure swung into action to reinforce their vital logistical systems that connect manufacturers to one another and to consumers.
To ensure that freight transportation is ready for where it is needed most, Norfolk Southern surveyed shipping customers as the pandemic began to better understand how COVID-19 and shelter-in-place orders might impact transportation requirements. The company then integrated that feedback into updated transportation plans.
Union Pacific put in place its “pandemic team” to ensure access to communities where strict shelter-in-place orders have been imposed. The company surveyed its customers and stressed stepped-up communications with shippers to “mitigate the impacts on supply chains by communicating, working together and planning ahead.”
“The more we can understand what your forecasted shipments might look like and when they will happen,” the company told customers, “the better we can help provide the transportation solutions you need to keep your supply chain running smoothly.”
That tight coordination has only increased as the stay-at-home orders have expanded across the nation and governors begin a phased in return to normalcy that could take weeks or even months.
Del Monte, a leading provider of non-perishable food, is working closely with BNSF and its intermodal team. Intermodal is a type of transportation in which large containers can travel on a freight railroad and then be transferred to a truck. The teamwork of trucking and rail in intermodal allows products to reach consumers fast. Similarly, BNSF is working with Lowe’s Hardware to ensure customers have access to urgent products to help ride out the pandemic, such as refrigerators and freezers, generators, hot water heaters, cleaning products and safety equipment.
In addition, another G&W subsidiary railroad has been providing extra weekend shifts for Proctor & Gamble to accommodate increased production of hand sanitizer. In addition, the railroad has worked closely with Georgia-Pacific paper mills in the Northwest to coordinate on wood pulp deliveries. The pulp is shipped by rail from Beaumont, Texas, and used at the mills to make materials for paper-product producers who finish, package and distribute the goods to the consumer market.
Before the pandemic, railroads were collaborating closely with companies to provide efficient and cost-effective freight transportation. The pandemic has only increased that collaboration, spurring railroads to create solutions for the unique challenges companies face today while providing an essential service that help Americans stay at home and stay healthy.