And What About The Hoboes?

Like most of its trains, Kansas City Southern was late on Friday, when Mayor Kay Barnes was the railroad’s guest to dedicate its corporate headquarters and boast about downtown revitalization. KCS has been operating from its new digs at Cathedral Square on Quality Hill since April 8.

Maybe the company had been too busy looking for its trains to throw a party before Friday. In July, after training employees for two years, KCS booted up a computer program to move the company boldly into the ’90s by keeping track of where every rail car is “at any given time,” says spokesman Bill Galligan. “That’s what all the other railroads have right now.”

But during July, August and September, the railroad couldn’t keep track of anything and repeatedly returned full railcars to shippers’ loading docks. “It was pretty squirrely,” Galligan says.

After using “a very old computer platform” for years, KCS workers weren’t ready for point-and-click computing. “It’s really not a complicated system,” Galligan admits. “These are folks who, a lot of them, are not all that comfortable with any level of computer technology.”

As a result, carloads of newsprint arrived at newspapers long after deadline. Chicken farmers had to bring in alternate feed supplies by truck when KCS grain cars didn’t reach Southern poultry farms. “We didn’t have to buy any chickens, but it was pretty tight sometimes,” Galligan says.

The crisis has passed, he says, everywhere except in Shreveport, Louisiana, the company’s hub. But an Arkansas customer disagrees. “It’s not over today, either. It’s terrible,” Ben Bramlett told the Pitch last Thursday. He’s director of administration at the DeQueen and Eastern Railroad in Arkansas, which interchanges rail cars with KCS. Even after KCS signals that it has a car for DeQueen, Bramlett says, “it might be a week to ten days” before it arrives.

The foul-up is costing KCS so much in overtime and extra locomotive trips that the company predicted last week it would not end up with 18 cents per share in third-quarter earnings as previously forecast. So far, no disgruntled shippers have filed lawsuits against the railroad, Vice President Gerald Davies told Traffic World, even though, he said, the company “wound some customers around the axle pretty tight.”

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