Owners of railcars across North America pulled 5,539 units of various types out of storage during August, shrinking the idled fleet to its lowest level since the 2008-2009 recession.
That was the strongest monthly drawdown of parked railcars since April. It left 271,404 still idle as of Sept. 1, said the Association of American Railroads, for 17.8 percent of the total fleet of available cars across the continent.
It is another indication that rail freight activity picked up in August after slowing earlier this summer. Railcar owners had steadily pulled more cars from storage this year through April, but parked some during both May and July as economic growth slowed and weather problems interrupted some rail corridors.
By The Numbers: Freight Cars in Storage
Back in June and July 2009, more than 500,000 railcars were sitting idle at rail yards, shipper facilities and on unused track sidings, with no revenue loads for at least 60 days. That amounted to 31.9 percent of all units available for freight service. August marked the first time since then that the idled fleet percentage fell below 18 percent.
The AAR estimates that about 55 percent of railcars that were pulled off storage lots were reactivated in the past two years, while about 45 percent were scrapped or otherwise removed from the listed fleet.
Car owners include equipment lessors, railroads and shippers. The AAR said owners have also installed 43,445 new cars since July 2009, and manufacturers report strong orders to supply more.
Industry sources say some of the stored cars are largely obsolete for today’s market, such as intermodal well cars for 48-foot domestic containers that have been supplanted by 53-ft. boxes. While some idled cars are being rebuilt for the larger boxes or otherwise waiting to be reactivated, many of those still parked could eventually be scrapped.