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Wednesday, December 14th, 2011
on the rails

I thought it’d be interesting to look at the trends in the different types of rail traffic over time.  The data comes from the Association of American Railroad weekly statistics on car loadings.

Caveats:  As I’ve stated before, while I like to use line charts to tell stories, when using them you always have to be aware of the sensitivity to the starting point, so that trend is often more important than level.  I started this graph in mid-2005, ahead of the economic disruptions.  Also of note is that these numbers jump around pretty dramatically from week to week, so these series are smoothed.

All that said, you can see the general recovery that has occurred off of the bottom, although with one exception they are all below their prior peaks years earlier.  The intermodal series shown is the total of trailers and containers, which is more indicative of what’s happening with finished goods.  It’s by far the largest category in terms of number of cars, more than twice as many as coal, which in turn represents more than twice as many as agriculture and food, which is in third place.

The two at the bottom really tell the story.  Motor vehicle traffic has bounced pretty well but remains way below where it was.  The shipment of forest products plummeted as construction collapsed (the homebuilders were the subject of Monday’s pix) and has improved only modestly.

Given how many of these numbers have flattened out a bit of late, they are sure to be watched carefully going forward.  (Chart:  Bloomberg terminal.)