I’ve Been Working on the Railroad

West Virginia’s Potomac Portable Restrooms moves inventory down the track to serve CSX maintenance crews
I’ve Been Working on the Railroad
Kathy and Jack Meyer (in the foreground) pose in the Potomac Portable Restrooms yard with the crew, which includes (from left) Molly Meyer, Michelle Fox, James Creek, Scott Hill and Bruce Orr.

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THE TEAM

Jack and Kathy Meyer own and operate Potomac Portable Restrooms in Shepherdstown, W.Va. The core team handling the CSX railroad account is lean but specialized. Using GPS, StreetEagle routing software from InSight USA and MapQuest satellite imagery, Jack guides one of the company’s drivers, Scott Hill, to the hard-to-reach placement sites as crews work along the tracks. Kathy, who handled office administration in a previous career, keeps the office running – phones, bookwork, routing sheets, work orders, billing and collections and customers. Jack also oversees the operations of trucks and drivers, including dispatch, truck maintenance and customer and equipment trouble-shooting. Hill receives assistance from the CSX crew when restroom placements are particularly challenging.

 

COMPANY HISTORY

Tired of three hours spent commuting each day to and from a 9-to-5 job in Arlington, Va., Jack Meyer was looking to make a change. When Kathy’s father, a veteran of the septic pumping business, suggested that Jack and Kathy buy a struggling company called Fairfax Septic 18 years ago, the two left careers in finance and took the leap. After building and growing Fairfax into a thriving septic service company, they sold it, then used the capital to launch Potomac in 2002. Their product-service mix focused more on portable restrooms than it had before – almost exclusively, at first, and now comprises 75 percent of the revenue – as the Meyers got in on the building boom of the 2000s. Today, Potomac has six employees, five trucks and an inventory of 450 restrooms. They service a 100-mile radius of Shepherdstown.

 

THE MAIN EVENT

Potomac was hired to provide restrooms for CSX railroad crews as they replaced every sixth railroad tie along a 70-mile stretch of track through Maryland between Brunswick and Cumberland. Restrooms are to be placed at two- to three-mile intervals, as close to mile markers as possible. This is a standard approach for the railroad. This specific stretch requires maintenance and replacement of the tracks each year, so the same crew is expected back in the foreseeable future.

 

BY THE NUMBERS

Leapfrogging the restrooms, 10 at a time for the 70-mile stretch of track, results in about 80 placements, Meyer says, and lasts about four months. CSX is charged for each placement, which allows the job – more time consuming than most – to remain profitable. The restrooms – all PolyJohn Enterprises PRN3s – are picked up, cleaned, serviced and leapfrogged to their next location once a week using a 2008 Dodge 5500 and a 12-unit McKee Technologies Inc. trailer.

Units put down earlier in a rotation might not be serviced at all – the driver just picks them up – as the 50-60 person crew might have already moved on. If there are delays – caused by heavy rain, for instance – Potomac services the restrooms once a week as needed. The 2008 Dodge 5500 has a 1,000-gallon waste/300-gallon freshwater steel tank, built by Lane’s Vacuum Tank Inc.

 

LET’S ROLL

The crew covers about two miles a day, so 10 restroom placements stay in place for about a week before they’re cleaned or replaced and leapfrogged to the next location.

Each week – usually Wednesday – Hill puts in an eight-hour day cleaning the 10 units thoroughly, then moves some or all of those same units ahead of the work crews. The timing hinges on the crew’s progress down the tracks, which can be hindered by inclement weather, but usually the Wednesday timeframe fits well with the crew’s schedule.

Potomac uses Walex Products Company Inc. deodorants to keep the restrooms smelling fresh and carries plenty of freshwater so units can be recharged in the field. Vandalism has not been an issue with the account.

The tricky part can be navigating what can be treacherous and unpredictable territory. It’s not always easy to find appropriate places to put the units – areas that aren’t too wild, remote, private property or impossible to reach. But occasional help from CSX crews, as well as GPS and routing technology, has helped Meyer streamline the process.

 

BOOST FROM TECHNOLOGY

Meyer relies on his personal knowledge of the geography and topography of his service area to direct and help his driver find the best locations to place the restrooms. He also spends hours on the Internet, researching aerial photos to understand what type of barriers – natural and manmade – drivers might encounter. Integral to his ability to do this well has been the StreetEagle software the company purchased about a year ago. It cost about $2,000 initially, and has a $175 monthly charge for five units, but Meyer said added efficiency provided by the software pays off.

“It’s a big help to be able to use the StreetEagle system where you can zoom in through aerial views to make sure we can see where we can put the restrooms down.” It’s important, he adds, because a driver might get to a remote location, only to discover a locked farm gate, or no access because of private property.

At times, the terrain has been so rough that the railroad has sent one of its crewmembers with the driver to direct him where to put the units. In fact, Potomac often works closely with the railroad to identify areas for placements in an attempt to head off problems. There also have been incidents, however, where a crewmember got called back to work, leaving the driver to fend for himself. Meyer has learned to roll with the punches on this project, which isn’t typical of the company’s workload.

 

ROLL WITH THE PUNCHES

This type of leapfrogging approach is new for Potomac and flexibility has been key.

“I knew it would be a problem to try to get them at the intervals that (the railroad) wanted,” Meyer says. “I explained that and they were very understanding of it.” Meyer isn’t deterred by the challenges he’s encountered with this new account, and looks forward to working with the railroad in future seasons – something he’s already verbally agreed to do.

“It’s different from everyday types of placements where you put a restroom at a work site or park. It’s a challenge, and I like a challenge.”



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