The U.S. Postal Service has aggressively moved to reduce costs by consolidating its processing network and realigning its delivery facilities. However, it has essentially eliminated rail transportation, which is the least costly way to move mail long distances.
During the recent economic downturn, railroads invested heavily in infrastructure to improve service. Private industry shippers of time-sensitive materials have responded to these improvements by shifting volume from highway to rail. UPS (the largest rail customer in the U.S.) attempts to put any package traveling over 750 miles on rail. JB Hunt, one of the Postal Service’s largest highway contractors, has shifted a substantial freight volume to rail and now earns more than one-third of its overall revenue from intermodal rail transportation.
The potential benefits to the Postal Service are clear. Rail is a less expensive and more environmentally friendly transportation mode compared to trucking. Recent estimates show that intermodal rail service can improve fuel efficiency by about 3.5 times relative to highway tractor-trailer service. In addition, rail gives the Postal Service more capacity flexibility as this mode can operate one-way, while highway transportation must be purchased in round-trips. Since Postal Service volumes tend to flow from north to south and east to west, utilizing rail would avoid the cost of paying for empty or near-empty trucks on the return trips. Rail is also far less susceptible to the weather interruptions that can wreak havoc on highways.
The Postal Service has evolved with the needs of a growing country for more than 230 years. A vast and complex network of processing facilities and transportation links was created to meet its universal service obligation. Today, the Postal Service has 260 Processing and Distribution Centers located throughout the country. This highly automated processing technology network provides incentives for its customers to presort the mail and drop ship it deeper into the network. As the likelihood of stagnant or decreasing mail volumes grows, there is a mismatch between the existing network capacity and user needs.
For several years, the Postal Service has introduced plans to consolidate its mail processing plants and reconfigure its transportation network. The Postal Service has made some progress, closing all but two Air Mail Centers (AMCs), initiating and implementing numerous AMP consolidations, and transforming the Bulk Mail Center (BMC) network in the Network Distribution Centers.
The U.S. Postal Service has experienced a significant decline in mail volume in recent years, yet its contracted surface transportation remains largely unchanged. While mail volume dropped almost 16 percent from fiscal year 2008 to 2010, the Postal Service contracted out around 1 percent more miles of highway transportation over the same period. During the same time, the Postal Service has had considerable success minimizing the number of labor hours employees spend on mail processing.
The following factors may have mitigated the effects on transportation from a volume drop:
• Network Distribution Center restructuring.
• Postal Service efforts to move more mail from air to surface transportation.
• Postal Service efforts to sell the newly empty space to other shippers through a collaborative logistics program.
Transportation represents the second largest cost component for mail delivery after labor, but the Postal Service has substantially more authority to cut contracted miles. The Postal Service could use its greater flexibility to end unnecessary contracts, alter necessary contracts, or redesign the system altogether. Highway transportation provides a strong opportunity for cost savings.
What do you think of the current contracted surface transportation infrastructure?
How would you adjust to new mail volumes?
This blog is hosted by the OIG’s Risk Analysis Research Center (RARC).Read More
Every day, thousands of containers holding letters and large envelopes are flown across the country to meet Postal Service standards. As you might expect, in almost every case, it costs more to fly mail than to ship it on a truck or by train. Because of this, from a cost standpoint, it’s important that each mail container is filled to capacity.
Public policy debates about solving the Postal Service’s financial crisis have largely focused on reducing costs by cutting service such as Saturday delivery, transitioning from brick and mortar post offices to alternative retail sales channels, or limiting other functions performed by the Postal Service. There has been less talk about the costs of meeting delivery service standards, which were reviewed following the passage of the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act of 2006.
Can the Postal Service relax some of its requirements to save money in transportation or processing costs? Right now, its goals are to deliver First-Class Mail in 1 to 3 days and Standard Mail in 3 to 10 days. A slight adjustment of these standards in particular areas might make it possible to save a great deal of costs. Instead of developing the goal first and trying to reach those levels, no matter how costly it is, maybe the Postal Service should closely analyze its infrastructure and develop goals that allow for reaching the greatest efficiencies.