In For The Long Haul


Well, this is interesting.  From Burlington Northern Santa Fe’s AAR reports from the last two years:

Coal, as you can see, makes up about half of car loadings, and that’s headed down.  Just from the couple of years, it looks as though there may be some seasonality in Intermodal, falling off in the last quarter.  I’ll know some more when I look at Union Pacific (back to 2002 and also mostly western) and CSX (back to 2006, but mostly the northeast and south).  Intermodal has improved through this year, but coal has been dropping for about 6 months.

Since the beginning of the year, coal has decoupled – so to speak – from the rest of loadings, which have climbed slightly or stayed level, even as coal has dropped.  We export a great deal of coal, and BNSF serves the western half of the country, Mexico, Canada, and the Gulf of Mexico.  (The railyard north of downtown Denver is a BNSF railyard, although we have a fair number of UP lines through the state, too.)  There have been reports that China’s been slowing down, and nobody really trusts – or should trust – the official numbers coming out of there.  Is it possible that fewer coal loadings as a sign of slackening Chinese demand?

I’m not quite sure what to make of the stagnating carloads combined with the improving outlook for intermodal.  We know that, over long distances, trains are more efficient than trucks.  Intermodal will continue to grow as a percentage of both rail traffic and overall freight ton-miles.  Is it possible that this is just more inefficiency being wrung out of the system?  Any other ideas?

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