2022 State of Railcar Repair Shops

Whether you own or lease railcars, eventually your railcars will need to be sent to a shop for cleaning, repairs, or qualification. Taking one railcar out of service can be painful, especially if the railcar is unusable for months at a time. Unfortunately, most shippers do not have a fleet large enough to fill the void while railcars are in the process of being cleaned, qualified, or repaired.

Ongoing Railcar Repair Issues

At RSI Logistics, we’ve noticed over the last couple of years that supply chain and staffing issues have caused railcars to be in the shop process for much longer than what it took prior to COVID-19 and 2020. This is largely due to material shortages, production issues, labor issues, and more railcars needing to be at the shop. The years 2023 – 2025 are significant in terms of the number of tank cars that will be due for qualification, based on the 10-year requalification schedule. Some shippers have started to try to get ahead of this influx of requalification railcars by sending them to shop early. This has contributed to railcars taking longer to get through the shop process.

Pre-pandemic, if a leased railcar needed to go to shop, it would take the railcar owner somewhere between 1 day to 7 days to assign that railcar to a shop. However, over the last couple of years, some railcar owners are taking up to 2 weeks to provide shop assignment. Meanwhile, it is up to the railcar lessee to figure out where best to hold that railcar until it can be sent to the shop. If the shipper’s plant is limited on railcar space and storage options, this amount of time can be difficult.

A railcar maintenance worker uses a wrench to fix a railcar.

Railcar shop facilities are experiencing the same last-mile delivery issues that all railcar shippers and receivers have seen in the past year and a half. This means the overall amount of time it takes for the railcar to arrive at the shop is taking longer, which just adds to the number of days this car is not in its intended service for the shipper.

If the shop has the material needed to do the cleaning and repairs on hand, the shops have been able to clean cars in about 1-3 weeks. If the railcar has an excessive amount of last contained product left in it, then it may take more than 3 weeks to process this railcar. General repairs average between 45-60 days, which will be longer for railroad damaged railcars. Again, this time can be exasperated if the shop is experiencing staffing and/or material shortages.

Tank car qualifications are currently averaging 60-90 days to complete the process. Older railcars may take longer at shop, as more repairs are typically identified and performed.

Mobile Repair Units for Railcar Repair

If you are experiencing challenges with your railcars at the shop, it could be advantageous to consider utilizing a mobile repair unit (MRU) instead of sending your railcars to the shop. This means the repair crew comes to the railcar instead of the railcar moving to them, which avoids railroad transit time and empty freight charges to move the car. We have seen dramatic changes in the amount of time it takes for an MRU to respond and make repairs. Companies that perform MRU services also claim that they have little to no material on hand to make repairs. Parts are ordered on a case-by-case basis once the crew has examined the railcar in question. Parts that are ordered are delivered directly to the railcar’s location, then the crew must be scheduled to come back out to fix the car. MRU turnaround times vary greatly depending on the region, we see events take from a few weeks to several months to complete.

Train repair employee sits on a tankcar talking by radio communication while looking at a tablet.

7 Tips to Improve Your Railcar Repair Process

  1. Appoint a dedicated person to communicate directly with car owners and railcar shops in a timely manner. This person can be part of your organization, or a third-party entity that acts on your behalf, such as RSI’s Fleet Management team.
  2. Request a mobile repair unit or request a shop assignment from the railcar owner the same day of the identified defect to start the shipping process as quickly as possible.
  3. Have photos of the defect, a safety data sheet, and clear shopping instructions ready to be provided to the car owner and mobile teams at the time of the service request.
  4. Prepare good shipping instructions (bill of lading) with efficient routing and correct consignee information to help ensure the railcar moves to the shop correctly and without delays.
  5. Once the shop estimates the work to be performed and an estimated cost, respond to the shop promptly, within 24 hours if possible. This will help improve the chances the shop will begin working on the car sooner.
  6. Provide clear disposition instructions as soon as the shop requests them, letting them know where you want the car to be sent and how it should be routed once repairs are made. Provide this information within 24 hours so the shop does not have to wait and possibly move your railcar out of the way because they do not know what to do with it.
  7. Create a plan to execute qualifications on a schedule where railcars are sent in smaller blocks throughout the year as opposed to sending large groups of railcars to the shop near the end of the year. In other words, try not to create a backlog for the shop, work with them and create a plan to rotate railcars in an out of service at a consistent pace.

Back view of a railcar repair worker with freight oil tankcars on either side.

Shop capacity comes and goes, and shop throughput, material, and staff availability changes with time as well. As a railcar owner or lessee, it is important to work within current conditions and do your best to make the process as smooth as possible. Understand what the current conditions are, and plan accordingly.

If you need help, we have a dedicated staff of experienced fleet maintenance managers that can help lead and execute your railcar shopping needs to help make this as smooth as possible. Learn more about RSI’s comprehensive logistics services here.

Meet the Author: Gail Carlson
As RSI Logistics’ Director of Client Service, Gail Carlson has worked to develop strategic relationships with clients, railroads, and other vendors. Gail has developed a culture of honesty and open communication that has resulted in low client turnover and long-term client relationships. She also keeps up with the ever-changing rail industry while offering robust solutions to fit each client’s needs.