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Norfolk Southern lays off workers at DeButts Yard

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Norfolk Southern furloughed 58 workers Tuesday at its DeButts yard in Chattanooga as part of a company-wide cutback in diesel shop operations the railroad is making in response to a drop in demand for diesel engine use in the current market.

The Atlanta-based railroad said the staff cuts in the mechanical department are part of the company's strategic plan to respond to market changes and become more productive to compete with other forms of freight.

"In today's rapidly changing environment, Norfolk Southern continues to focus on ensuring that we have the optimal number of people and assets at every location across our system in order to operate safely and efficiently," Norfolk Southern said in an announcement of the furloughs. "Consistent with our strategic plan and current business levels, our ability to streamline operations and use fewer locomotives has required the difficult but necessary decision to reduce our locomotive mechanical forces due to the decreased demand for locomotive maintenance and repair."

The company said furloughed employees may have the opportunity to apply for positions, as available, elsewhere in the NS system.

The staff cuts followed the furlough of nearly 300 employees in Virginia and in Pennsylvania during September and other layoffs of more than 80 employees earlier this year in Virginia, West Virginia and Pennsylvania.

Tennessee State Sen. Todd Gardenhire, who once worked at Norfolk Southern and went to the Chattanooga rail yard Tuesday morning to talk with displaced workers, said in a Facebook post that there are more than 100 idle diesel locomotives sitting at DeButts yard "so there is no need to repair them.

"Today is a sad day for about 50 or so pipe fitters, electricians and other craft tradesmen," he said.

Norfolk Southern has been cutting staff over the past year in response to a drop in business. The railroad giant said last month it achieved record operating ratios in the third quarter, in part, by cutting its crew staff by 11% in the past year to offset the 6% decline in its shipping volume.

Norfolk Southern has outlined a TOP21 plan to pare expenses and improve its productivity on rail lines in response to the slowdown in the market. Gardenhire said he was told Norfolk Southern is moving to longer trains, which don't require as many diesel engines to be in service, and the railroad business is being squeezed in the current highly competitive shipping market with a surplus of trucks now on the road.

"Looking ahead, additional productivity will be generated as we advance to the third phase of TOP21 and execute initiatives surrounding fuel efficiency, distributed power, intermodal operations, and our mechanical network, just to name a few," Norfolk Southern CEO James A. Squires said in the company's recent third quarter report.

Two years ago, the railroad cut 74 jobs at the DeButts yard when it phased out its gravity-based "hump" system it long used to build train alignments at the 64-year-old rail facility off Wilcox Boulevard.

But Norfolk Southern reopened the yard hump at DeButts Yard in Chattanooga last year to help ease congestion amid rising traffic volumes in the spring of 2018. Since then, however, shipping volumes and margins have declined.

The hump system has remained in service, but staffing at the diesel shop is being reduced, officials said.

Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfreepress.com or at 757-6340.

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