Bouncing back from a shortened week that included Labor Day, major U.S. rail operations had their strongest intermodal performance of 2009 in the week ending Sept. 19, and carloads nearly reached recent year-to-date highs.
Yet the report also contains cautionary signals about how fast freight demand is rising overall.
U.S. operations of large rail carriers plus a few regionals that report to the Association of American Railroads loaded 205,137 intermodal units in the latest week, which was still down 12.4 percent from a year earlier but topped what had been the 2009 peak of 204,103 loads set on Jan. 10.
Those big railroads originated 282,341 carloads of bulk commodities and cargoes such as motor vehicles that require large freight cars. That was one of the highest numbers this year and not far behind the 2009 peak of 285,580 reached Aug. 29, even though the latest week was still down 9.6 percent from the same period last year.
The report is in line with a number of recent signs showing that freight demand has firmed. Among the latest-week highlights were new 2009 highs for the number of railcars hauling automobiles and equipment, at 14,457 loads picked up, and for waste and scrap materials at 8,976.
Both suggest a recent surge is still under way for train-hauled autos and cheap scrap inputs for factories to make new products.
Loadings of grain hopper cars were the strongest since February, topping even the mid-August surge as grain demand caused more shippers to load railcars.
Yet the report also showed some mild cooling in demand from recent levels in a number of carload categories.
Chemical tankcar loadings at 27,608 in the latest week are in line with levels through most of August, but are down 1,000 loads or more from Aug. 29 and Sept. 5.
Coal loadings of 130,695 railcars were just slightly ahead of the Labor Day week, and were down 11 percent from a year earlier. Coal is the largest rail cargo by volume, but through the first 37 weeks of 2009 carriers have hauled almost 500,000 fewer coal cars.
The mixed view of demand from the weekly figures may not clear up until next month. That’s because heavy flooding around Atlanta this week shut down some key traffic lanes for both Norfolk Southern and CSX Transportation, and could have slowed handoff traffic from western carriers as well. So next week’s report on traffic through Sept. 26 could be dampened by the flood impact.
Contact John D. Boyd at firstname.lastname@example.org.