Lack Of Freight, Sluggish Economy Idles Railcars

BNSF Railway Co., the nation's top hauler of container rail freight, is parking miles of railcars in Montana and elsewhere because there isn't enough freight to keep them rolling.

CRAIG, Mont. (AP) -- BNSF Railway Co., the nation's top hauler of container rail freight, is parking miles of railcars in Montana and elsewhere because there isn't enough freight to keep them rolling.
Cars that often carry 40-foot containers of goods shipped from Asia stand like an iron fence between the Missouri River and this Montana burg known for world-class fly fishing. They stretch as far as Sandee Cardinal can see when she stands outside her home on the river's west bank between Helena and Great Falls.
''What is that but a symbol of how America is down in the dumps right now?'' Cardinal asked as she gazed at the cars that haven't moved for about three months.
The cars parked are the type that haul cargo from ships on the coast to points inland, mainly imported goods -- an area that's starting to slow down due to the weak economy. Analysts say transportation usually is among the first sectors to show signs of a downturn in the economy and with Americans feeling pinched -- employers eliminated 63,000 jobs last month amid declining consumer confidence -- it could be a while before the idle cars move.
''If you take a look at transportation, both trucking and rail, you will see that things started softening last summer,'' said Arnold Maltz, associate professor of supply-chain management at Arizona State University. ''The reason you are seeing all those cars parked is that the consumer economy translates into slower imports.''
Texas-based BNSF Railway, a division of Burlington Northern Santa Fe Corp., has parked upward of 1,000 cars in Montana alone, spokesman Gus Melonas said. More are parked in other parts of the company's 32,000-mile system, which operates in 28 states and two Canadian provinces.
''There's been a downturn in international business and therefore this equipment is not necessary at this point,'' Melonas said.
The cars standing between Helena and Great Falls constitute 5 percent of the BNSF fleet, Melonas said. He declined to say what percentage of the fleet is parked elsewhere, citing confidentiality issues.
Seasonal car storage is common, he said, but the number of cars now idle is exceptional.
Most of the parked cars are designed for intermodal transportation, when containers filled with imported goods are taken off vessels at U.S. ports and then transported by train, truck or both to distribution centers around the country.
For the first two months of 2008, the volume of intermodal rail freight in the United States was down 3.4 percent compared to the same period last year, according to the Association of American Railroads, an industry group based in Washington, D.C. Last year, intermodal traffic was flat as railroads began to feel the effects of slowing retail orders and the dollar's decline.
While shipments of store-ready consumer goods such as clothing have dipped, movement of coal, grain and ore have risen, according to the association. The latter are less sensitive to swings in the economy and help balance out the bottom line.
Excluding intermodal traffic, rail freight rose 1.7 percent for the first two months of 2008 compared to the same period a year earlier. Coal was out in front last month with 576,012 carloads, or an increase of 5.7 percent.
''The railroads have actually performed relatively well when you look at their entire portfolio,'' said transportation analyst Todd Fowler of KeyBanc Capital Markets in Cleveland.
For 2007, BNSF Railway's parent company, Burlington Northern Santa Fe Corp., reported about $15.4 billion in total freight revenues, compared to about $14.6 billion the previous year. That growth was carried largely by coal and agricultural segments.
The annual revenue generated from hauling domestic freight was down about 1 percent from 2006, while international traffic was up 2 percent. Meanwhile, coal and agricultural revenue each grew about 12 percent.
Union Pacific Railroad spokesman James Barnes said the Nebraska-based company's intermodal business is ''just a little down, but that's not unusual for this time of year.'' The company's total commodity revenue was $15.5 billion in 2007, compared to about $14.9 billion in 2006. The agricultural segment posted an 8 percent increase over 2006.
Another major rail company, CSX Corp. in Florida, said its car storage is not out of the ordinary. The company's total revenue from surface transportation was up 5 percent, from about $9.6 billion to $10 billion in 2007.
One of the nation's leading trucking companies, Schneider National in Green Bay, Wis., says it believes a freight recession began about 20 months ago, well before signs of a downturn closed in on consumers.
''We have been in a freight recession longer than people have been expressing deep concern about the economy,'' said Bill Matheson, Schneider's president for intermodal transportation.
Trucking companies are in a unique position. They often compete with railroads for long haul contracts, while also carrying rail freight from the nearest railhead to its final destination.
Schneider is not parking trucks, but neither is it buying new ones to the usual extent, Matheson said.
In Long Beach, Calif., home of the nation's busiest port complex with Los Angeles, the movement of goods has been somewhat stagnant. About 7.3 million containers passed through the Port of Long Beach in 2007, the same as in 2006, port spokesman John Pope said.
''That was a big decline from the growth we'd seen in the past decade or so,'' Pope said. ''Typically, there had been double-digit growth from year to year.''
In January, Long Beach posted a decrease of about 12 percent in overall volume compared to January 2007. The situation was less extreme last month, with a 2 percent drop in overall volume compared to a year earlier.
While retailers have imported less goods to be hauled by rail or truck nationwide, exports leaving Long Beach rose as the weak dollar strengthened overseas purchases of U.S. goods, Pope said. Rising export volume -- including grain and wheat shipped by rail --helped balance falling container imports for most of last year.
''It's a barometer of the economy,'' Pope said. ''We're going to see the ebb and flow that mirrors what happens in the rest of the nation.''
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