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Workin' on the railroads? Not so much

January 13, 2010 |  1:50 pm

Just about every industry has been hard hit by the global recession, but it can be argued that U.S. railroads had a particularly tough time of it. By one estimate, railroads in 2009 suffered their third worst collapse in volumes since 1932.

In 2009, U.S. railroads logged 13.8 million carloads, down 16.1% or 2.6 million below 2008 and 18.2% below the 16.9 million carloads recorded in 2007. That's according to the Rail Time Indicators report released today by the Assn. of American Railroad's Policy and Economics Department.

There were declines across the board in every major category of freight that gets hauled by rail, such as agriculture and food products (down 11.4% from 2008) and chemicals and petroleum (down 13%).

But the most severe hits occurred in the two industries that suffered collapses several months before the worst of the global recession struck -- the housing and automotive industries. Forest products freight, which includes lumber, declined by 33.4% from 2007 to 2009, the railroad association said. Motor vehicles and automotive parts freight plummeted by 47.7% during the same period.

It was the worst year for railroad traffic ever recorded by the Assn. of American Railroads, but they only began tracking such data in 1988. At least one Wall Street analyst turned the rail history pages back to give 2009 the "bronze medal" as the third worst collapse since the Great Depression.

"Only the recessions of 1938 and 1949 produced steeper annual declines in railroad tonnage," said Rick Paterson, air freight and surface transportation analyst for UBS Investment Research in New York.

But the Assn. of American Railroads may have summed it up best: "Good riddance to 2009."

--Ronald D. White

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