For the past year I’ve been following the dismal news about falling freight car traffic on North American railroads.
Then I ran across a commentary that America’s industrial sector is in a recession and therefore so are North America’s railroads.
It remains to be seen if this will pull the rest of the U.S. economy into a recession. Consumer spending fuels two-thirds of the economy and so long as that remains strong there may be a slowdown but not a recession.
But the statistics about falling freight traffic combined with the response of the railroads has taken me back to the early summer of 2008. Like today, railroad traffic was slowing then, too.
Although I didn’t suspect that a recession was around the corner, I did tell a friend in an email message that I expected to see fewer trains and do more trackside reading that summer.
Later that year the Great Recession took hold and I have a vivid memories of driving to Akron Railroad Club meetings on Friday evenings and seeing a long line of idled boxcars and auto rack cars on a siding of the CSX New Castle Subdivision in Cuyahoga Falls.
It was a vivid and tangible reminder of how sour the economy had turned.
The railfan press published photographs of long lines of older locomotives mothballed by Class 1 railroads because there were fewer trains operating.
I am not prescient enough to predict what will happen to the U.S. economy this year and many economists who claim to be able to do so are not worried yet about another recession.
But I can see 2008 and 2009 happening again and in fact it has already started.
Last year CSX began operating fewer and longer manifest freights.
I got a first-hand glimpse of that strategy one afternoon in New London last fall. I’ve always enjoyed sitting in the parking lot next to the above ground reservoir and watching CSX trains on the busy Greenwich Subdivision.
But on this day the Greenwich Sub was uncharacteristically quiet. Every busy rail line has lull periods, but the lulls on this day were out of character from what I had observed in the past.
It was a Monday and I’ve heard that there is less rail traffic on Mondays. So maybe that explained the paucity of even intermodal trains.
But I’ve noted on other days that there seem to be fewer trains on CSX. I’ve also taken notice of monster length mixed car freights.
In the past couple of years I used to be able to count on seeing multiple tank car trains during a given railfan outing. Now I do good to see one.
Norfolk Southern recently said that it is going to run fewer and longer trains as part of a strategic plan to improve its financial position.
Throw in the loss of coal and crude oil traffic and it means that if you spend time in Berea this year watching trains you are going to have a lot of time to read the latest issue of Trains or Railfan and Railroad between trains.
Trains are not going away and the industry expects better times to return eventually. But until then, there will be less to see trackside.
Although I didn’t live in Northeast Ohio in the early 1980s, guys who did have talked about how scarce trains became on the Chessie mainline through Akron.
If you found a train on the Chessie, you followed it as far as you could and created as many photo ops as possible. Otherwise, you might be spending hours looking at empty rails.
Given what lies ahead with the railroads of Northeast Ohio, it might be time to pull out of storage the chase a train most of the day strategy.
Trains columnist Fred Frailey has suggested there is something different about this falloff in rail traffic.
In a column titled “The Party’s Over,” Frailey said the railroad renaissance of growing traffic of the past decade is over. Coal, once a dependable source of revenue and traffic, is falling precipitously and growth of intermodal traffic has stalled amid intensifying competition from truckers benefiting from lower fuel prices.
Although some railroad industry analysts believe the railroad renaissance is on hold, not over, Frailey thinks otherwise.
He called for a new business model that can respond effectively to highway competition, shipper unhappiness, increased government regulation, and unrelenting pressure from Wall Street for short-term results.
Frailey suggested that BNSF might have the framework for such a model in mind because its traffic numbers are up slightly in some areas and only slightly down in others.
I’m sure that Frailey will be writing about the “new model” in future columns in Trains. Goodness knows I’ll have plenty of time to read those columns as I sit trackside waiting for the most recent lull in rail traffic to end.