Conrail has put the brakes on its customer automation program yet again.
But the latest delays do not mean the company's aggressive EDI campaign has derailed, executives from the Philadelphia-based company said.The carrier is merely putting its program on hold while it gets some internal housework finished, according to company spokesmen.
Companies affected by Conrail's move gave it mixed reviews. Some registered annoyance at having made large investments in technology and then seeing other companies that had not incurred such costs. Others really didn't care.
"It doesn't bother me that much," said Chuck Huber, EDI coordinator, Tri-State Consolidators Inc., Wexford, Pa.
"We're totally EDI with Conrail," he said.
That is certainly not the case with all of Conrail's consolidators.
Two years ago Conrail announced that all of its intermodal retailers had to send shipping instructions electronically. Otherwise they wouldn't be given volume discounts.
Electronic transmission required the retailers to build computer systems that could send standardized electronic bills of lading to Conrail over telephone lines.
Electronic data interchange of this sort is becoming more and more common in many industries, especially transportation.
Conrail stipulated that if the retailers wanted to receive discounts on their contracts, they had to adopt EDI within a certain time period.
A year ago, they were required to send at least 10 percent of their bills of lading by EDI. By last July, 50 percent. And by this month, they were to be sending 90 percent.
But in October, Conrail announced that it was calling off its mandate. The delay marked the second time the rail line had postponed its deadline.
The delays haven't meant Conrail has lessened its commitment to the technology, said Joe Waldo, product manager, EDI.
Concomitant with building its EDI program, Conrail had been developing a new rate structure, according to Mr. Waldo.
Conrail wanted to become more competitive with trucking. To do this, it decided early last year that it would follow the same pricing practices as the trucking industry.
ZIP codes of origin and destination, therefore, would determine freight charges.
This departed from the way Conrail currently determines its freight bills, which involves some seven or eight pieces of information, according to Mr. Waldo.
When it decided to use ZIP codes, "we discovered that our information requirements for shipping instructions (from retailers) would change," said Mr. Waldo.
That's when the company announced to its retailers that the 1989 target of 90 percent on EDI would be postponed.
"We felt there wasn't any point in mandating EDI when the underlying administrative system was going to be changing," explained Mr. Waldo.
"It didn't make any sense to impose 90 percent EDI and then right away come in with a whole new set of information requirements."
"We felt that we ought to postpone the 90 percent until we had our administrative system that would support the EDI in place."
The postponement, according to Mr. Waldo, "is in no way a reflection of whether or not the program was positively or negatively received by our third parties. It was very well received."
Also, he said, "it doesn't mean that EDI doesn't work or that we aren't committed to EDI. It was purely an internal administrative decision (on our part) on the timing of these systems."
According to Mr. Waldo, Conrail will resume its push into EDI sometime in the near future.
"We intend to reinstate a new percentage once we have our administrative systems in order," he said.
Mr. Waldo declined to say when a new percentage deadline would be set but promised that Conrail would announce one within the year.
Conrail's earlier EDI mandate affected approximately 120 retailers, according to Mr. Waldo. All of them had begun adopting EDI according to Conrail's schedule.
According to Mr. Waldo, all had met the July target of 50 percent. Currently, not one is below this level. A few are already at the 90 percent level, he said. These are companies that generally are pursuing EDI for their own purposes.