Georgia has established itself as a top place to do business, evidenced by Norfolk Southern Corporation’s relocation of its headquarters to Atlanta in 2021. The company operates in a 22-state service area, plus Washington, D.C., with 19,500 route miles, service to every major Eastern seaport, and the most extensive intermodal network on the East Coast. In short, in the United States, Norfolk Southern is a key part of the system that moves products to the people who use them. Here, we speak with the company’s EVP and CMO, Ed Elkins, who also serves on the Georgia Chamber’s Executive Committee and chairs the Georgia Chamber Foundation, about why Norfolk Southern chose Georgia for its corporate home base, how AI is improving operations, and how the company is upgrading safety.
What prompted the 2021 move of the headquarters to Atlanta, and what are some of the ways Norfolk Southern contributes to Georgia’s pro-business environment?
When someone asks why we decided to move our headquarters to Atlanta, there are a lot of answers. Norfolk Southern was created in 1982 when Norfolk & Western merged with Southern Railways, which had a large presence throughout Georgia.
The city is a perfect fit for our vision of Norfolk Southern as the digital railroad of the future. It is diverse and inclusive. It is a technology hub with world-class talent and universities. And it’s a crucial transportation corridor steeped in the history of the rail industry. Locating in Atlanta also brings us closer to many of our large customers.
To be a leader in today’s rapidly evolving transportation and logistics market, we needed to be more agile and work more collaboratively across organizational boundaries. We needed to bring operations, technology, marketing, finance, and other functions together in one place. Many operations and technology roles were already located in Atlanta. The city is a cornerstone of Norfolk Southern’s Golden Triangle—the foundation of our intermodal network traffic flow and a vital link in the nation’s freight transportation network.
Georgia is a critical global connection point. Norfolk Southern and the Georgia Ports [Authority] enjoy a longstanding partnership. In fact, Savannah to Atlanta is one of our largest international lanes, and Norfolk Southern is supporting the Georgia Ports as they ramp up the Mason Mega Rail facility and the Northeast Georgia Inland Port. Both of those projects will increase capacity and open new lanes for our mutual customers.
Our railroad also plays an important role in industrial development. Alongside our state and local economic development allies in Georgia, over the last decade, we have supported approximately 90 projects, which have generated more than $1.9 billion in investment and created more than 2,100 jobs. Several global trends are pointing to increasing opportunities for the U.S., especially the southeast region. These include onshoring of advanced manufacturing to the U.S. in search of affordable and reliable energy, a trained and capable workforce, and a robust logistics network capable of serving global markets. Other favorable global trends include the forward positioning of inventory closer to the end user. This will benefit logistics and warehousing development here in the U.S. Right now, we have an active project pipeline with approximately 40 opportunities. The future of Georgia is strong, and because of that, we are even more confident in our investment over the long term.
The U.S. narrowly avoided a rail workers’ strike in 2022. What is Norfolk Southern doing to address workers’ demands to make sure the rails keep rolling? How are you creating a positive work environment and a thriving workforce?
We employ more than 5,400 Georgians, 1,418 of whom have been hired in the last five years, and we support 2,703 retirees who still call the Peach State home. Our training center is headquartered in McDonough, where we provide centralized technical education for newly hired craft employees and advanced programs for veteran and supervisory employees.
Our craft railroaders are the heart and soul of Norfolk Southern, so we are taking an industry-leading approach to address workforce needs. We have made it a priority to engage with union leaders. For example, we recently became the first Class I railroad to negotiate paid sick leave agreements with all our union partners, and we have been on a hiring spree [since our move] with 1,500 new craft employees network-wide to date.
Norfolk Southern had a tough start to the year, with a catastrophic train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio in February. What is the biggest lesson the company has learned about handling such events?
Rail is the safest and most sustainable way to move freight over land. In 2022, Norfolk Southern had fewer derailments than in any other year in the last decade. Last year Norfolk Southern’s employee injury rate was among the lowest in the industry and it has improved by 35 percent since 2020. Our goal is always to prevent accidents before they happen, and we work with first responders across our 22-state network to respond safely in the unlikely event of a rail incident.
Since the derailment, our company leadership and the entire organization have been guided by one collective mentality: to make it right. Every day, more than 300 Norfolk Southern team members and contractors are on the ground, listening and supporting the community’s needs. We are making progress every day as we clean the site safely, thoroughly, and with urgency. We have invested more than $37 million into the region’s economy since February 3, including directed relief to 9,500 families, totaling $15 million; have appointed a dedicated community liaison; and are developing long-term programs to protect drinking water, support home values, and provide medical compensation.
We’ve also worked throughout the last several months to communicate openly and honestly with our customers as we navigate the incident aftermath. Our marketing and operations departments are working hand in hand to identify customer-centric solutions where challenges arise, manage network volume, and continue to fulfill the critical role that we play for the American economy.
What are some of the key new safety and environmental protocols that have been put in place as a result?
We have several initiatives underway at Norfolk Southern to make our safe railroad even safer. For example, we recently appointed Atkins Nuclear Secured as an independent safety consultant. The nuclear industry is the gold standard for industrial safety, and we intend to set the gold standard for the railroad industry. We also introduced a six-point operational safety plan to strengthen the safety solutions we have in place; we are deploying more wayside detectors and acoustic detectors across our network; and, we have increased our first responder training and announced a new training facility in Ohio. So far in 2023, we have trained more than 1,000 first responders from Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Georgia, and West Virginia, and we have 10 more on-the-road training sessions scheduled through the remainder of this year.
We are also taking a leadership role to advance safety initiatives, working with policymakers, and steering the entire rail industry to implement changes. Those efforts include important advancements for accident prevention, mitigation, and response that will make our railroads, our employees, and our communities safer.
Artificial intelligence is a topic on everyone’s minds. How is it impacting your industry and how is Norfolk Southern leveraging it for good?
Freight railroads are the safest way to move goods over land. Norfolk Southern knows we can make rail even safer. Frequent, detailed train inspections to identify potential defects are critical to safety and preventing accidents. Norfolk Southern, in collaboration with the Georgia Technology Research Institute (GTRI), is piloting next-generation machine vision inspection technology that can pinpoint small defects challenging to identify with the unassisted human eye. And it can do so while the train is moving at full speed along main lines. The new technology will increase existing safety protocols and provide an even higher level of confidence for the public and our railroaders.
Our Machine Vision Inspection Portal technology leverages trackside camera rays that take high-speed, 360-degree images of railcars as they pass at up to 60 miles per hour. The advanced portal uses flashes of stadium-grade lighting to support high-resolution imaging. Then, more than 40 algorithms will analyze terabytes of data from images for defects in the car in real-time, identifying defects at a greater scale than is visible to freight car inspectors and mechanics. The quality of Norfolk Southern’s proprietary AI algorithms exceeds anything currently used in the rail industry. When the algorithms are coupled with the latest, military-grade machine vision technology, fewer false positives are the result.
Defects trigger a two-step authentication process, alerting the Network Operations Center (NOC) for analysis backed by human intelligence. The alert includes information such as rail car, time, location, and highly detailed images of the defects. A defect record is immediately created for mechanical crews to fix the issue based on the level of criticality. Depending on the type and severity of the defect, experts at the NOC help determine next steps, including assessing if the defect can be addressed at the next yard or, if it is a critical defect, alerting crews to bring the train to a safe stop.
NS chose GTRI to be a collaborator because they develop advanced technology solutions and large-scale system prototypes to address the most difficult problems in national security, economic development, and the overall human condition. They are proven innovators, creating a secure nation and a more sustainable world. We expect to deploy the technology, currently in the proof-of-concept phase, to our mainline beginning in September, with the first six mainline deployments expected to be complete this fall.