The recovery in freight traffic hit some washouts at major U.S. rail operations in the week ending Sept. 26, with bulk carload traffic down nearly 4 percent from a week earlier despite gains in several cargoes.
Storm-socked rail numbers for the week make the underlying trend in freight volume harder to see than normal, amid signs that the rebound from springtime lows could be slowing. It may take another week or two, after the traffic data is past all the weather effects, to decipher basic freight demand.
Major railroads hauled 271,659 carloads of bulk commodities and equipment at various stages of processing in the latest week, down from 282,341 as of Sept. 19. Except for a holiday period, carloadings were the weakest since early July.
Intermodal loads, however, edged upward to a new 2009 high of 205,627 units of containers and trailers, from 205,137 a week earlier. But intermodal slipped relative to the 2008 pace.
The Association of American Railroads said the decline in U.S. volume for carriers that report to it – the seven Class I lines plus a few sizable regional rail firms – came as flooding in the Southeast halted some rail routes for two days in and out of Georgia.
That curbed traffic through the major rail center of Atlanta, slowed the flow of coal supplies to the large Scherer power plant there and disrupted shipments into neighboring Alabama, Tennessee, and North and South Carolina.
Both major eastern railroads, CSX Transportation and Norfolk Southern, had to close some corridors due to high water or track washouts over Sept. 21-23, and then took some time to return to normal after they restarted trains.
The storms also affected some feeder service from regional and short lines, and backed up some handoff trains entering the region from western railroads such as coal out of Wyoming’s Powder River Basin.
Intermodal was less affected, since much of that traffic comes from West Coast seaports and rails across the nation to major consumer centers.
Yet while intermodal set a new high for this year, it slipped in year-over-year comparisons at a time of year when box traffic tends to spike. Last year saw a weak intermodal peak season, but traffic for the same week of 2008 was still 16.5 percent stronger, AAR said.
Despite losing a lot of normal train time to weather, large railroads originated more shipments of metallic ores, at 6,001 carloads, than any other week of 2009. That is in line with a recent pickup in factory demand for metal products, spurred partly by federal automobile purchase incentives in August that forced carmakers to build more.
Their loadings of metals and products at 7,405 railcars were the strongest in eight weeks, and carloadings of scrap metals and other waste materials were close to their 2009 peak.
Railroads also picked up the most railcars in the past month of construction aggregates – crushed stone, sand and gravel – at 15,824 loads. That could reflect continuing strength in road repairs or other construction projects that are bolstered by federal stimulus funds.
Other carload shipment categories declined. Some were already falling moderately before the weather’s impact, including the industry’s single largest commodity, coal.
Contact John D. Boyd at email@example.com.