Freight Rail Traffic Hit 20-Year Lows in 2009

From Warren Buffett’s acquisition of BNSF to the Obama administration’s high-speed rail initiative, the nation is abuzz with talk about a revival of freight trains as an energy-efficient alternative to trucks. 

freight_rail.jpg(Photo: TSA)

But amid the positive forecasts for freight, the Association of American Railroads (AAR) released data today that showed just how bad of a year 2009 was for the industry.

Total carload traffic on U.S. railroads sank by 16.1 percent between 2008 and 2009, hitting lows not seen since 1988, according to the AAR.

Traffic levels for last month were 4.1 percent lower than those of December 2008 and 17.6 percent lower than the last month of 2007 — interestingly, the AAR found that decline driven by less coal movement. Excluding coal shipments, rail traffic actually rose by nearly 7 percent between December 2008 and December 2009.

In a statement accompanying the data, John Gray, AAR senior vice president for policy, chalked up freight’s struggles to the recession. "We’re hopeful that 2010 will be a much better year for
the economy and for railroads.”

  • egk

    “Excluding coal shipments, rail traffic actually rose by nearly 7 percent between December 2008 and December 2009.”

    Another reminder that US freight rail’s relatively large market share (vis a vis, say, Europe) exists only because of the inordinate amount of coal we truck across the continent to burn for electricity. Freight rails “green” credentials belie the energy wastefulness that is its cause.

  • Lauren Sandberg

    According to a recent independent study for the Federal Railroad Administration, railroads are nearly four times more fuel efficient than trucks, their major competitors.

    While coal shipments were down 7.9 percent in 2008 when compared to 2007, railroads fuel efficiency numbers actually increased. In 2008, railroads moved a ton of freight and average of 457 miles on one gallon of fuel (up from 436 in 2007).

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