This week’s Railfax report offered a stunning comparison of rail traffic in 2009 versus 2008. If you thought that the biggest impact of the events in the fourth quarter of 2008 were primarily on your portfolio then check out these charts. You can see that railroad freight traffic fell off the proverbial cliff. This was especially true for intermodal traffic (upper righthand chart). Intermodal traffic represents the sea containers that get unloaded from ships and stuck on tractor-trailler frames. From an eyeball-ing of the charts, intermodal traffic accounted for 41.7% of total carloads. For lack of a better word picture, it’s the stuff headed to Walmart. It hit a peak for the year on 9/30 and plummeted.
- Baseline traffic is, from the Railfax website, carloads “that are less affected by the business cycle.”
- Cyclical traffic, as the name suggests, represents carloads that are tied to the business cycle.
Railfax also breaks out car loadings for Crushed Stone and Lumber & Wood Products, figuring that these are forward indicators of economic activity. While you can see that, not surprisingly, lumber and wood products have essentially followed the troubles in housing (i.e. already in decline, accelerated in Q4), shipments of crushed stone fell by 50% in Q4. A screeching halt comes to mind.