North American railcar owners pulled 11,087 more units out of sidings and other storage areas in September, for the largest drawdown of the idled car fleet since March.
That is yet another sign that rail traffic strengthened last month, a time when the autumn intermodal peak season kicked in and set record weekly highs, while industrial carload shipments grew faster after a summer slowdown and reached their highest levels of this year.
The Association of American Railroads said the latest drawdown left 260,317 railcars still idle across in the continent as of Oct. 1, having gone at least 60 days without a revenue-generating load.
That was 17.1 percent of the total fleet of available equipment, down from 31.9 percent of railcars that were parked in July 2009 before the freight recovery began.
The rail industry lobbying group estimates that since the recession about 55 percent of railcars removed some storage have been reactivated, while 45 percent have been scrapped or otherwise permanently dropped from the fleet. After they have been in long-term storage, railcars may first need shop work to get their wheels and brakes ready for cargo service.
Last spring, railcar leasing fleets, railroads and shippers that own their units steadily drew down idled cars until freight activity slowed sharply as summer approached.
Car owners went from pulling 22,617 out of storage in March amid strong freight demand to parking 2,855 of them in May. Traffic then perked up for part of June, and owners drew down 2,847 cars from sidings and out of rail yard storage areas, but idled 707 again in July as demand slumped again.
But with a steady recovery in traffic levels in August, the continent’s railcar owners pulled 5,539 units out of storage and then doubled that pace last month.
Industry sources say some types of equipment, such as covered hoppers to haul frac sand for shale oil and gas operations, and tank cars to carry oil, are in such tight supply they are using up all older units and forcing owners to order thousands of new ones built.