• on Sep 5th, 2011 in Mail Processing & Transportation | 5 comments
    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 shift to rail, however, is not without its drawbacks. On average, rail is slower than highway transportation. It would also require greater monitoring and pre-planning and complex decision-making by management. For example, the Postal Service would need to choose when to dispatch to rail yards versus alternatives such as dispatching a highway trailer to a network distribution center or other consolidation points. Although it would require some additional efforts, the potential savings to the Postal Service of converting from highway to rail could be tremendous. While concerns related to speed of service moved the Postal Service almost completely away from rail, other shipping companies are embracing rail with vigor. This blog is hosted by the OIG’s Risk Analysis Research Center (RARC).
  • on Aug 29th, 2011 in Products & Services | 5 comments
    The Pushing the Envelope blog recently described some of the barriers that have prevented the Postal Service from optimizing its network of retail facilities. This week we’d like your thoughts on the factors the Postal Service should consider in developing a retail network for the future. If the Postal Service were to rebuild its retail network from scratch — focusing on today’s consumer behaviors and needs — would it look as it does now? Today, there are about 32,000 brick and mortar postal-operated retail facilities. However, the Postal Service generates about 35 percent of retail revenue through alternative access channels. For example, customers can buy stamps and access postal services at http://www.usps.com/, self-service kiosks, grocery stores, retail outlets, and privately operated shipper locations. The availability of alternatives combined with declining mail volume and changing consumer needs has led the Postal Service to renew its efforts to optimize the retail facility network. In recent months, the Postal Service has initiated action to address some of the institutional barriers that have inhibited modernizing the postal retail network. For example, in July 2011, the agency published final rules to improve the Post Office closing and consolidation process. However, public debate looms over this initiative. Numerous news articles have circulated about the Postal Service’s plan to study thousands of retail facilities for discontinuance opportunities, some questioning whether the final rules conflict with postal laws. Others maintain that Post Offices are essential to keeping communities connected and businesses strong and therefore should remain open even if they are not profitable. What should the Postal Service consider as it seeks to transform its retail network to meet future consumer needs? This blog is hosted by the OIG’s Network Optimization Directorate.
  • on Aug 18th, 2011 in Mail Processing & Transportation | 31 comments
    The U.S. Postal Service’s network was designed to deliver First-Class Mail in 1 to 3 days. If you drop a First-Class letter going to a local address in the mail, you can expect it to be delivered the next day. These basic delivery standards date from a time before e-mail and other electronic methods of of communication. Now, as some First-Class Mail shifts to electronic alternatives, are these service standards worth the cost? The overnight First-Class Mail service standard requires the Postal Service to keep its processing plants open through the night and on Sundays. The Postal Service needs more labor, machines, and facility space to meet the compressed time schedule. Two trips are often needed to take mail to the delivery unit so that carriers can start sorting manual mail while machines at the plant finish sorting automated mail. In addition, the tight transportation windows required by the overnight service standard limit the size of plants’ service areas, reducing the Postal Service’s ability to consolidate the network. The 2-day and 3-day standards for First-Class Mail and Priority Mail can also add to costs. Often the need to meet service standards means that First-Class Mail and Priority Mail have to travel by air rather than less expensive ground transportation. Some of the Postal Service’s largest business mailers have stated they value consistency over high speed and would tolerate slightly slower service to save costs. As the Postal Service examines many different alternatives to improve its financial position, could relaxing service standards be an option? The OIG asked Christensen Associates to examine the costs that could be avoided by relaxing service standards by 1 day. Christensen estimated the Postal Service could save up to $1.5 billion if service standards were loosened by 1 day for its higher speed products (First-Class Mail, Priority Mail, and Periodicals). To learn more, read the recently released white paper Cost of Service Standards. What do you think? Should the Postal Service relax the overnight service standard? Should it continue to use air transportation for First-Class Mail? This blog is hosted by the OIG’s Risk Analysis Research Center (RARC).

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