Freight Traffic Drops to 30 Year Low Amid Economic Slowdown

An autorack train pulls into Whitefish, Montana in April 2019. Photo by Justin Franz. 

Freight Traffic Drops to 30 Year Low Amid Economic Slowdown

As the coronavirus pandemic brings the global economy to a crawl, U.S. railroads reported moving just over 224,000 carloads of freight in March 2020 in what was the worst month for traffic since the Association of American Railroads began collecting data in 1988. 

According to data released by AAR on April 3, total carloads in March 2020 were down 3 percent from February and down 6 percent from March 2019. Meanwhile, intermodal traffic was down 12.2 percent from the same month last year, the biggest year-over-year percentage decline since September 2009. 

While just about every type of freight traffic was down in March, no commodity dropped further than auto and auto parts traffic thanks to the temporary closure of a number of factories. During the third week of March, U.S., Canadian and Mexican railroads moved 25,518 loads of automobile-related traffic; a week later railroads moved just 9,745 carloads, a 62 percent drop. Just how much lower carload numbers will get is anyone’s guess.

“Nobody knows how bad things will get for the economy because nobody knows how long it will be before the coronavirus is under control, but pessimism abounds,” AAR officials wrote in their monthly Rail Time Indicators memo. 

While analysts are pessimistic, railroad officials say their employees are stepping up to the challenge of moving freight during these unprecedented times. Class One railroads report taking steps to ensure employees stay healthy by increasing the amount of cleaning they do and encouraging social distancing by having people work from home or de-centralizing dispatch operations. In a message posted online on April 3, BNSF Railway General Superintendent of the Network Operations Center Jon Gabriel said the railroad’s network was fluid and ready to handle whatever is thrown at it. 

“We know that you and our nation are depending on us to deliver services now more than ever,” Gabriel said. “As one of our locomotive engineers recently shared on Facebook, ‘The railroad will not stop. We the railroaders will not let it.’ That’s the spirit across our network right now and (it exemplifies) the tough-minded optimism that will get us through these very challenging times.”

—Justin Franz, Railfan & Railroad Magazine

This article was posted on: April 6, 2020