Monday, September 27, 2010

From the Editor: When will the good times start rolling again? (August 2010)

Written by 

By William C. Vantuono, Editor

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The Great Recession is receding (though some insist it mightbe reseeding). Traffic is returning to the railroads. Profits are up.Productivity is up. Operating ratios are falling. Take a look at Class Isecond-quarter earnings reports  ifyou're skeptical.

"The rails are now riding the recovery wave of expandingtraffic for major commodities haulings as well as strong year-over-yearcomparisons for intermodal movements," says Peter Toja of Economic PlanningAssociates, the industry's well-known freight car forecaster. "As of the secondquarter, all the major commodity groups were registering gains with theexceptions of coal and paper, which have rebounded in the second quarter but havenot yet overtaken their extremely weak starts. While we are gratified by thesecond quarter traffic results, we anticipate further commodity traffic flowimprovements as we proceed through the second half of this year and into 2011.Agricultural exports are rising, ethanol production is accelerating, thehousing markets are improving, light vehicle sales are expanding, manufacturingactivities have revived, and a stronger economy will stimulate greaterproduction of electricity. These activities will prompt the haulings of grain,ethanol and distiller grain, lumber, motor vehicles and parts, metals andproducts, chemicals, plastics, and coal. And, these improvements will extendinto 2011 and beyond."

That's great news. What does it mean for the industry'sfreight car builders, who are finally starting to experience a gradual upturnin orders after bottoming out yet again in the endless roller coaster ride ofthe railcar market? 

"Railcar orders are reflecting the rebound in traffic," saysToja. "After rising to 5,078 cars in the opening quarter of this year, ordersin the second quarter amounted to 4,886 cars. The first half strength in orderswas centered in coal and related service cars, covered hoppers, and tank cars.While we believe that replacement pressure was the driving force behind coalcar demand, the acceleration in ethanol production has sparked renewed interestin hi-cube covered hoppers and certain tank cars. The previously dormantsmall-cube covered hopper segment came back to life in the second quarter as1,307 cars were ordered."

Toja says he is "enthused by the outlook for commodity andintermodal haulings but is cautious with regard to new equipment demand in theshort term due to the still large amount of idle capacity in the rail system.Still, the improvements in major commodities markets will once again stimulatedemand for rail equipment during the longer term forecast horizon. It alsoappears that carbuilders are exercising caution at this early stage of recoveryin new equipment demand. While we appreciate the caution on the part of thecarbuilders as well as the multi-year orders portion of the existing backlogs,we would expect to see a pickup in second half production runs."

Looks like the carbuilders will have to wait a while longerbefore production really gets back on track, Toja notes: "We have lowered ourforecast of assemblies this year from 16,000 to 13,250 cars. Even withcontinued improvements in economic activities, the oversupply of railcars willdampen the rebound in assemblies next year. In 2011, we look for deliveries ofonly 19,750 cars. Beginning in 2012, far stronger economic activities willprovide support for certain railcar assemblies. The extremely low levels ofdeliveries this year and next will serve to intensify the pressure to replaceaged equipment in various fleets during the longer term forecast horizon. Afterthree dismal years, we look for deliveries to advance moderately to 31,000 carsin 2012 and then expand annually to the level of almost 60,000 units in 2015."

Mystery solved: In the June issue, I asked if anyone couldlet me know what became of Pullman car Railway Age built for the 1883 NationalExposition of Railway Appliances and presented to Railway Age Editor E. H.Talbott. My thanks to Adrian Ettlinger of the Railway and Locomotive HistoricalSociety, and  William Howes, aformer B&O and Chessie System executive. Howes came up with the following:

"The car was built by Pullman in January 1882 (or, perhaps,ordered in 1882 and completed in 1883), to Plan 117 as the only car in Lot 24.It was acquired by E. H. Talbot of Railway Age. It was sold back to Pullman inMarch, 1889 and became one of Pullman's private cars available for rent. Itsname was changed (probably in 1889) to Wildwood, which appears on an 1893Pullman list of private cars available for rent. The Wildwood was apparentlyremodeled and modernized about 1898 (Plan 117B). Records indicate that the Wildwoodwas wrecked on the Pennsylvania Railroad in early 1899. This seems to besubstantiated by the fact that the car does not appear on a 1901 Pullman listof private cars available for rent. Photos of the Wildwood taken by Pullman in1898 are available at the Smithsonian (negative numbers 4282 through 4285).Additional information on the car can probably be found at the Newberry Libraryin Chicago."

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William Vantuono

With Railway Age since 1992, Bill Vantuono has broadened and deepened the magazine's coverage of the technological revolution that is so swiftly changing the industry. He has also strengthened Railway Age's leadership position in industry affairs with the conferences he conducts on operating passenger trains on freight railroads and communications-based train control.