Rail Traffic Dropped Sharply in 2009

Late-year gains in some commodity cargoes and in intermodal business were not enough to let large U.S. rail lines escape double-digit declines in both types of traffic.

The Association of American Railroads said that for the 52 weeks ending Jan. 2, U.S.-based Class I carriers and a few large regional lines that report to AAR saw carloadings of commodities and machinery drop 16.1 percent to 13.8 million loads.

Intermodal fell 14.1 percent in 2009 to nearly 9.9 million units. (See separate story.)

Measured by ton-miles -- which some observers say is a more accurate measure of all types of train volume -- those railroads carried an estimated 1,491 billion ton-miles of freight in 2009, compared with 1,757 billion in 2008, for a 15.1 percent drop.

Traffic hit its lowest levels in the spring and summer, then began a mild recovery. Even through heavy winter storms in December that depressed carloadings, a number of rail-hauled cargoes in the final month were staying ahead of the same point in 2008. Back then volume was plunging as all sorts of factories locked their doors to see how much the recession would spread.

In the week ending Jan. 2, intermodal loadings were up 1.8 percent from the 2008 week, while bulk carloads were down 1.5 percent mainly on falling coal shipments.

But U.S. carriers picked up 26,143 carloads of chemicals, for a 19.5 percent gain from a year earlier. That is a strong signal of renewed factory demand for inputs, as chemicals are used as raw materials for some goods including plastics and for intermediate or finished products such as packaging materials.

Another source of late-year strength was rail hauls of motor vehicles and equipment, in line with solid recovery showing up for the automobile industry. Rails originated 5,808 carloads of that cargo group for the final week, up 53.3 percent from the last week of 2008.

However, such rebounds were too recent to overcome earlier declines. Chemicals ended 2009 down 9.6 percent while vehicle and equipment loads were down 33.6 percent.

The single largest rail cargo is coal, which ended the year down 10.9 percent and has continued to show weakness even late in the year.

- John D. Boyd.