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From the nation's railroads, some positive economic signs

November 10, 2010 | 12:09 pm

The Assn. of American Railroads Rail Time Indicators report released this week showed some encouraging signs about the U.S. economy. The report tracks statistics for 19 major commodities as well as so-called intermodal units, the truck trailers and cargo containers that hold the freight.

October is typically the busiest month for intermodal rail traffic, as retailers receive the bulk of their goods for holiday sales. That month, U.S. railroads moved 941,775 intermodal trailers and containers, an average of 235,444 a week. Not only was that 14% higher than in October 2009, when the economy was just emerging from recession, but it was also the highest amount since October 2007, and the 12th-highest level ever, the report said.

The nation's Class 1 railroads, including Union Pacific and BNSF, which serve the West, were also hiring engineers and conductors, with total employment up 1,169 positions between August and September to more than 154,000.

Another positive sign in the report involved the number of idled freight cars that were returned to service. In October 12,800 of those cars were pulled back into service, the report said, leaving about 21% of the fleet -- or 318,275 cars -- still idled. That figure is down by 185,000 since June 2009, when a record number were out of service.

More than half the intermodal rail traffic consists of imports or exports, and growth in international trade is a major factor behind higher intermodal traffic this year, the report said. The AAR report, as well as earlier monthly versions, can be found here.

-- Ronald D. White