This column is focused on the U.S. rail freight economy, starting with the near term, 2022 into 2023, followed by an overview toward 2030. Near the beginning of the year this outlook task may be a fool’s errand.
Here is why: First, the recent two years of events give us very little hard intelligence upon which to base such pathways. Second, the year started with multiple disruptive circumstances. There is no previous period like this upon which to set in place a forecast.
There is significant disagreement among my economic and railway colleagues as to the root cause of both the volume pattern shift we are seeing among different transport modes and the cause of the now widely coined “supply chain” crisis. Ask yourself, was there a collapse of transport capability over the past two years? Or instead, did the transport networks perform reasonably well in terms of tons and ton-miles of goods moved? Or instead, were supply chains disrupted largely by unpredictable shortages of resources from materials to manpower, or just very bad logistics reserves planning by logisticians?
Add the question, were supply chain disruptions more likely the result of excessive demand for certain products caused in large part by an over-stimulation in some sectors of middle- to upper-income disposable incomes? Too much disposable income chasing products not normally sought in such volumes? Thus, a classic market supply vs. market demand tension? As a society, we haven’t sorted this out, and yet the business of freight and commerce requires us to consider what the path ahead is and how to invest.
This forecasting task might be better defined as “how to prepare for the most likely market abnormalities ahead.” However the projections are made, we are moving as if within a fog bank with dysfunctional radar and sonar telling us about the possible weather and shoals ahead.
THE SAFE APPROACH IN 2022
When in poor visibility, the wise tactic is to slow down, prepared to stop within your visible range. Let’s translate that to investment decisions that senior rail users and railroad managers must make in the coming 11 to 18 months. First question: What do our various intelligence gathering sources tell us?
On the plus side, rail freight overall had an okay but not robust 2021. Carload business has remained rather tepid, with selective recent commodity growth. The promise of highway truck diversion to rail intermodal hasn’t occurred, but rail intermodal continues to move very large amounts of freight. The seven Class I railroad companies, now merging into six with the Canadian Pacific Kansas City transnational combination, remain very profitable. There is no evidence of deferred maintenance and financial turmoil like we saw decades ago, in the 1960s-1970s era, pre-partial deregulation under the 1980 Staggers Rail Act. There is the physical capability to add back traffic volume to the existing rail network without massive amounts of new capital investment.
Let’s individually examine some of the largest commodity rail sectors.
The volume of U.S. rail intermodal-moved goods responded early in the first half of 2021 with increased traffic delivery—but then, some of this market declined in the second half of the year. 2021 ended with a downslide for intermodal. Worse yet, the beginning weeks of 2022 are off to a very poor start. The long-promised intermodal growth model appears to be sputtering.
As “The Intermodalist” Larry Gross of Gross Transportation Consulting points out to his readers, the first two regular weeks of 2022 came through with lower volume than was achieved in December 2021. It appears that the intermodal troubles have not yet run their course. The four-week moving average comparison with the prior year has certainly worsened. In January 2022, intermodal units dropped 14.6%, according to AAR figures.
(January 2021, however, “made for very difficult comparisons for a number of categories,” the AAR noted in its Feb. 2 weekly rail traffic report. “For example, January 2021 was … the highest volume month ever for intermodal.”)
In any case, Larry Gross is pointing out what the data from various sources shows. That sends a poor message as to railroad 2022 intermodal capital investment.
Coal traffic for energy use was up due to spikes in spot price increases of natural gas, but the longer decade and plus outlook for coal “remains negative.” No Class I railroad would disagree with this outlook. Coal volume is up both over the past six months and into early 2022. But that increase pattern is not enough to generate strategic enthusiasm. Other than for maintenance of the existing coal car fleet and existing but aging mines and power stations, no one seems to be buying more coal cars for the fleet.
MINERALS, GRAVEL, STEEL
It is true that metals and minerals volume moved by rail has recently been increasing. Yet, the manufacturing outlook for continued product demand is clouded by the fog of commodity price inflation.
Optimistically, across both 2022 and 2023, execution of the now-funded IIJA (Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act) does suggest that minerals, sand and gravel and steel will likely ramp up throughout the decade. It’s all part of our nation’s infrastructure reconstruction. Rail freight will benefit from this market demand.
Yet, there are sector concerns not to be ignored, as shown in this first graph, which is an example of just one of the essential modern industrial materials where inflation is playing a critical change supply and demand and price role. This is an example of a MetalMiner Aluminum pricing graph. They circulate it as part of their industrial market message. They also cover a wide variety of other resource materials. This type of data is important, because inflation combined with disruptive market supply pricing will play a role in future rail freight carload traffic and car fleet investment outlooks.
Chemical and petrol feedstocks along the Gulf Coast and selected inland areas like the Marcellus region near Ohio and Pennsylvania should, according to most sector economists, continue the growth pattern that was predicted back in 2018-19 and was seen to improve through much of 2021. The chemical sector outlook was previously discussed in some depth in January 2021 in my Railway Age report, “Mixed Forecast for Chemicals This Year.”
The conclusions then were:
- A slow new tank car order recovery into the second half of 2021.
- Increased pace of backlogged tank car deliveries into the second half.
- Gradual increase in new orders for covered hopper cars for plastics.
- The momentum for increasing railroad chemical traffic should continue in 2022.
Demand for housing and construction project lumber should increase, But, as a warning, the pace might be slowed by rising interest rates.
PROCESSED FOODS AND PERISHABLES
Perishable foods and related cold sector commodities still appear to struggle to find their roles as a railroad commodity growth sector, particularly for railroad carload traffic. This specific cold storage and perishable distribution business model is—as a railroad selling and delivery proposition—a broken model. For railroads to regain a carload growth and relevance presence again, something significantly new has to be put into administration and asset utilization place. Its struggling position as a service is not threatened by the pandemic or by the overall economics of our 2022 society. The scale opportunity of rail carload perishables certainly lives. But the execution remains challenged. What is the outlook for cold storage rail freight as a growth segment? Not since after World War II has carload rail perishable service flourished. It’s a niche market with a so-far declining role:
Here is a strategic question: What Class I CFO would give the authority to proceed for such a business risk to the balance sheet and its ROI to such assets for such a bold market reentry? Is it more likely that a third-party organizer with integrated investment and operating control might step up?
A big-time reentry strategy would be very expensive. A refrigerated railcar costs close to $300,000. That requires an optimistic management culture and supporting business process model. Is this kind of a “change management” structure approach a 2022 Class I initiative, or perhaps a longer-term target? Those are some of the issues to wrestle with as we consider the outlook ahead as to who might lead such a “cold supply chain” market rebirth.
FINISHED MOTOR VEHICLES
Construction of new automobiles and trucks, a high-profit-margin railroad carload market, is significantly stalled. However, according to multiple industry watchers like Boston Consulting Group, the finished motor vehicle industry faces a significant production decline caused by computer chip shortages that will very likely continue into 2023, and possibly still linger into 2024, perhaps in the range of a 15% to 20% decline in manufacturing capability. That is despite the high demand by consumers for new automobiles and light trucks over most of the past 12 or more months. That’s going to hurt railroad profits and chances for volume growth, at least over the next two years. Here is market outlook evidence, using multiple sources.
The chip shortage dates back into 2020, as overall market demand from all buyer types soared by around 10% to 15% inventory on hand, or reserves ordered by customers dropped during 2020. Only a few of the major automobile manufacturers had a reserve of the basic analog or low-functionality chips used in many modern cars and trucks. At the same time, demand by stay-isolated consumers during the early pandemic months increased for all kinds of electronic devices. That demand combined with several extreme global weather pattern changes. The results for the auto industry are clear in this graph:
Even Tesla has decided to forego some new vehicle model introductions because of the chip shortages. That includes its new truck model.
LIKELY RESULTING INVESTMENT IN ROLLING STOCK ASSETS
Let’s translate what we can glimpse from primary market sector references and published reporting along with what we can discover in projections being offered by a variety of market experts into what the measurable impact might be principally upon North American freight railroad companies and their suppliers.
What we are showing is the possible one-to-two-year traffic change outlook as a positive or negative impact upon railroad purchases of equipment and the rail industry impact upon track and supporting rail freight-related infrastructure like signals, bridges and repair machinery. Prudently, one should apply a discount factor to account for inflation and continuing disruptive spikes in the U.S. economy.
When you interpret these outlooks, allow for the following possibilities:
- 5% to 10% overall risk allowance to your capital plans.
- 3.5% to ~ 4.9% possible averaged price inflation for the entire year.
- 5% to 8% selected materials shortage or procurement delays.
- 5% or much more price inflation on selected materials.
- An unknown level of skilled worker shortages.
- Drewry maritime consultants just downgraded its 2022 outlook for world port throughput to 4.6%; it had been 5.2%.
- U.S. GDP growth might reach between 3.5% and 5.5%; but remember that more than half of that is not rail-traffic-related sector growth. And railroads often come in at less than GDP. On the positive side, assume that there will be a continuing recovery, unless we are overlooking a critical “event” beyond the pandemic scale. There are always some such risks.
- Railroads will not do as well growth-wise in 2022 as many ocean carrier lines will. For example, Drewry forecasts that ocean carriers can expect a third year of 15%-plus annual growth in total revenue. No one is predicting that for North American intermodal. Yet, it’s roughly a 15% rate that would signal a modal shift from truck to rail.
Amid these metric challenges, some optimism is logical, in part because the existing fleet of some 1.6-plus million railroad freight cars have an expected normal replacement rate. At some point, selected equipment types of lessors or lessees will have to signal their market view in at least a status-quo fashion. How much equipment must normally be replaced with new, annually, just as a base line? Consider that each car type has a long life expectancy; 40 years to sometimes 60-plus are possible.
Take the overall U.S., Canada and Mexico railcar fleet of North American open-interchange UMLER equipment. We’d normally expect roughly 40,000 to 45,000 new freight cars of all types to be delivered annually. I can only speak to the strategic size of that fleet and the purchase sizes. It’s best to look along commodity- or industry-specific types when looking deeper at the order/replacement outlook. Do that by car type.
At the risk of error, by going first, allow this veteran railroad economist to set the table. Interpreting the broader economy data from sources that I respect, and based upon my experience at strategically following the rail freight industry, here is my outlook for railroad capital investment likely to be “obligated” during 2022, including locomotives, of which the market for new main line (high-horsepower) EPA Tier 4-compliant units has been virtually non-existent, with railroads choosing to rebuild and upgrade older (Tier 1-3) locos.
The L-o-C notation in the table is my “level of confidence” in the projected car type forecast. I’m not 100% sure of anything these days. The L-o-C marks this rail economist’s assumed discount factor. The risk factor that matters, is of course, is your own.
Here is a more optimistic overall outlook for rail freight car manufacturing from the experts at FTR Transportation Intelligence. Todd Tranausky and his colleagues presented their detailed outlook earlier in January 2022, and they see upside:
This 2022 capex investment theme will be more intensely examined at the Rail Equipment Finance 2022 conference during the second week of March. It takes about a day and a half to cover just the detail of the business outlook by car and commodity type. If you are attending (and I hope you will), remember to insert your own risk factor adjustments during the presentations. Or, better yet, challenge the speakers’ critical business assumptions. The REF conference format allows plenty of time for questions and answers.
LIKELY RESULTING INFRASTRUCTURE INVESTMENT
Railroad capital investment in infrastructure has two purposes. The first is long-term capital maintenance, state-of-good repair (SOGR) to maintain steady-state train movement and capacity. The second is to add capacity and accommodate additional train services, and sometimes to eliminate network bottlenecks (congestion points). Such project funding, in old accounting terminology, was called “betterments.” Roughly 85% of annual railroad capital infrastructure investment is for SOGR.
Here, based upon my behind-the-scenes market research and my 17 years of engineering experience with Zeta Tech Associates (a Harsco Rail division), is my outlook for this year’s 2022 rail infrastructure capital programs across North America.
INFORMED INTERMODAL MARKET OPINIONS
As you consider the offered projections and the business conditions, here is a selection of experts that likely take a different interpretation to the market ahead. For balance, their views need to be considered. Alert: These parties do not necessarily agree with my predictions or my central market dynamics assumptions. Yet, I do respect their professional opinions.
Ron Sucik is one of the foremost intermodal railroad practitioners, with a long career at TTX. Now retired, Ron volunteered some of these market views. Ron will present his final assessment of the 2022 intermodal outlook on March 7 at the Rail Equipment Finance 2022 conference. He expects we will continue to see a shift of more traffic to the East Coast Ports. That shift is going to alter the profitability and volume flows of the western state railroads like Union Pacific and BNSF. There is also going to be more cargo on-port or near-the-port transloading from maritime TEU/FEU(20-foot/40-foot length) containers to 53-foot domestic containers on the West Coast. While there may be sufficient TTX intermodal fleet capacity, the technical issue might be if there are sufficient 53-foot well cars in the fleet, if transloading increases dramatically away from the use of the much-shorter-length stack cars designed for 40-foot boxes.
Sucik does not necessarily see, at this time, any large intermodal volume growth for the railroads until perhaps closer to 2023. He does not believe that the North American carbuilders will get many orders for new intermodal cars. The exception might be if the railroads were to pivot toward converting more semi-trailer business to rail, which then would require acquiring more of the all-purpose spine car design. That equipment purchase would have to be handled by TTX. There are so many disruptive market conditions at play, that he is not optimistic in his early-2022 view.
Larry Gross is another go-to intermodal expert. His experience covers multiple transport equipment types. And his subscription service in unison with IANA and other experts is important if you want a global assessment of changes afoot. Following are Gross’s views from his Intermodal in Depth January 2022 report, which he graciously gave permission to Railway Age to publish here:
- The crisis period 2020 and 2021 could have been the years when intermodal rail took advantage of trucking problems and filled in the service gaps.
- The Class I railroads could have demonstrated Rail intermodal’s ability to excel and capture volume and share. But if we look at Larry’s data rich traffic files, that didn’t happen.
- Year 2021 North America intermodal originated traffic units during 4Q 2021 ended with a 9.4% volume drop. Yet the volume for the year overall ended slightly higher than during 2020 by virtue of the rather large gains during first-half 2021.
- To understand the variability of intermodal business, one really has to follow track on different lanes and on different railroads and O/D pairs.
- The strongest international volumes during 2021occured in the Southwest-Southeast so called transcontinental corridors, which would include, for example, LA – Atlanta traffic routing.
- Traffic variability throughout the months of a year also is different for international containers than for domestic containers.
Gross considered the question, “Is intermodal’s somewhat damaged reputation repairable?” The answer? Probably.
Intermodal highway drayage is still a big problem. And that is not normally a Class I railroad-provided service. Fixing that part of the mixed provider intermodal business model will not likely originaye within the Class I headquarters. Overall, intermodal rail still represents opportunity, but with challenges.
CARLOAD AND CARLOAD EQUIPMENT OPINION
As for the carload business, there are some with increasingly positive outlooks. One notable upbeat comes from GATX Chief Executive Officer Robert Lyons. In a recent business briefing, Lyons stated that he sees stronger fundamentals than those of the previous cycles associated with ethanol and crude oil-led railcar use upturns. He sees a “broad-based demand strength across railcars type vs. railcar du-jour demand’. He appears bullish on the duration of the cycle as if the industry is “in the early innings” of a recovery. Within his specific rail market sector, he may be correct. I expect to see his primary evidence and that from GATX’s competitors delivered during REF 2022.
LOOKING BEYOND NEAR-TERM 2022-2023
As for the longer terms out to 2025 and then out to 2030, the challenge for railroad freight is to turn around the pattern that we see in these Federal Reserve (FRED) graphs recommended by Michigan State University Associate Professor of Logistics, Department of Supply Chain Management, Eli Broad College of Business Jason Miller, Ph.D. Index graphs, not volume graphs, they suggest how challenged the U.S. freight railroads are in terms of a growth strategy. It’s hard to grow when so much bulk cargo traffic that’s economically favored for rail movement has been significantly reduced in the past one to two decades. Overall carloads are down (excluding highway competitive intermodal). Industrial production and heavy manufacturing are down. Coal’s long-term trend is down. Paper, steel, crap metals, lumber—all struggling.
Even certain chemicals have declined, on an index basis:
There is a same-period trend for trucking and inland water freight. In contrast, trucking has grown while inland water freight commerce has remained relatively constant, compared to the base year near 2000:
Few dispute these patterns. Why has this been happening? Rail over the past half-century has lost two important transport characteristics. First, railroad tracks cover far fewer service points (stations) after so many Class I consolidations and line abandonments—even with the masive increase in Class II and III carriers, the entrepreneurs of our industry, many of which have been highly successful in growing the top line. This service point reduction represents a physical structure shrinkage from which the railroads will not likely recover. Further, rail has suffered directly as the manufacturing share of the U.S. economy declined following World War II, shifting to a “service economy” in which we buy a lot of stuff we don’t build. Bulk commodities and large, high-value freight like finished motor vehicles and the distances involved in transporting them make rail the favored mode choice, but they still haven’t been enough to reverse freight rail’s declining market share
One essential forecasting question: Will manufacturing return to North American shores (so-called “near-shoring), and locate new plants on or near railroad lines? Few have a firm prediction, though there have been some encouraging signs that the economy is moving, at least a little, in that direction.
Meanwhile, even the promise of rail intermodal has since about 2015 become much more of a challenge. A potential truck-like rail freight market is there. But it is to a large extent moving in semi-trailer trucks whose trailers are not transported in double-stack well cars.
The railroads are trying to convert shippers from using semitrailers to using containers. Converting semi-trailers to all-container moves? That might be a fool’s errand. The railroads have pivoted away from TOFC (trailer on freight car) to the extent that TOFC is now less than 10% of all intermodal rail moves, and some economists predict its eventual demise.
Beyond shifting the semi-trailer onto a railroad car is perhaps a more daunting task: How to mine the traffic-rich short-haul distribution market lanes, like Memphis to Cincinnati, Chicago to St Louis, or Indianapolis to Kansas City, movements in the 250- to 600-mile distance range. Rail needs some type of a breakthrough mechanism—a different business model perhaps combined with a new equipment type—to convert these short-distance moves from trucks to rail. The business model for such short-distance market capture capability is not embedded in the current versions of the PSR model.
Here is the strategic longer-range challenge: “What’s the shape, structure and engineering of that business model shift look like in order to secure market share growth and the taking of market share from semi-trailers?” I believe it will take one of two business process shapes or forms.
One process change is a shift in the railroad company role from the Class I’s being hands-on at the exact location of its customer origins and at the receiving customer destinations. Class I’s lack that kind of selling and customer service coverage. They largely wholesale their service. Customer customized delivery and service recovery is not really offered at a retail level.
So instead, let’s consider a world where the Class I’s provide just the mass movement trainset hook-and-haul service. And a business class (group) of new entrants (organizers) invests its capital in not only the railroad car fleet (already above 70% private) to a nearly 100% private fleet and also takes over the entire sales and marketing role, or works with Class II and III railroads in that capacity. Under that shift in the business process, carload operations could change to look more and more by 2025 to 2030 like the intermodal process has turned out to be, because in intermodal, the beneficial shipper and the receiver are known to the intermodal organizers, not to the railroad line haul company.
As evidence, very little of the current Class I railroad intermodal process provides a railroad-specific beneficial cargo pickup and delivery function. Railroads instead typically provide a market and pricing template that fits into their rail company PSR wholesale big-train operating plan. As a result, today there is very little traditional sales and marketing by the Class I intermodal departments, compared to intermodal back in the 1970s.
We can see this pattern if we look carefully. Some call it “rationalization” or “corporate reengineering.” Others call it “demarketing.” Regardless of the terminology, the organizing repercussion of this pattern deserves some serious SWOT (Strength/Weakness/Opportunity/Threats) discussion now for the carload business. There are such market opportunities, if growth is the objective. Perishables organized from farm field to grocery shelves by carload is one area.
Another change is a shift toward more integration and private investment into regional distribution centers, where the rail industrial park business model is not just about moving intermodal trains. There are rail carload industrial and perishable and dimensional (high and wide) carload market opportunities in strategic lanes with appropriate size and positioned in very large carload sites across the U.S.
Using the market success from other locations like Will County, Ill. (Joliet) and some of the local state/inland port sites, there are opportunities in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Florida, the Carolinas, Georgia,and out to central California that I have researched, in part driven by opportunities for local economic development and local employment opportunities that support a more directly involved railroad supply chain service. Some of these locations can be carload markets like those operated by Class II and IIIs, but served directly by the Class I’s.
There are also interesting niche markets ahead. A small one is the Central Maine & Quebec route recently purchased by the Canadian Pacific. That route serves intermodal, fuel and potash market demand via the port at Saint John, New Brunswick. Potash growth last year was reported considerably up on CP-moved tonnage. Saint John now offers weekly services for three container vessel operators: Hapag-Lloyd, CMA CGM and MSC.
Dimensional “power sector” heavy equipment traffic is a growth opportunity. The nation’s energy supply equipment manufacturers and their utility company buyers are looking to create a distribution network with prepositioned strategic parts, huge parts like generators and prefabricated substations. That network will require some railroad right-of-way width investment. Those kinds of opportunities will be discussed in New Orleans this summer at the RICA (Railway Industrial Clearance Association) conference.
Gulf of Mexico rail- and truck-linked perishable services could be instituted using a new southern Mexico Farm-to-Market third-party disruptive cold chain operation via a core barge service, but still linked at ports like New Orleans for rail distribution into the U.S. Southeast, Midwest and Northeast, even into eastern Canada. One such operation already exists, Genesee & Wyoming subsidiary CG Railway, which moves (with new vessels) numerous types of railcars between Mobile, Ala., and Coatzacoalcos, Mexico.
New ideas about hook-and-haul “private short-haul intermodal” might provide the organizational breakthrough for expanding the coastal to inland port business model. Here the key might be to shift the investment and return the risk to the private entity, away from the often risk-adverse railroad company—have the investors or the port community own and manage the distribution service as a private inland container train operation. Buy wholesale train services and strategic rail right-of-way use (scheduled) slots, at a fixed but profitable-to-the-railroad price.
That kind of private train risk-shifting approach has worked before. Think of Penn Central and Detroit Edison in the late 1960s, or the initial APL Line stack trains in the early 1980s. Might be time to try it again.
Call me cautiously optimistic. Rail freight in not a gloom and doom story. But the old business model? Even with its PSR recent name change? It likely must change again, because so far, there is not much evidence of a long-range strategic growth charge ahead coming out of the “seeds” of the PSR model. So far, there is little hard evidence being published about the direct expense and capital utilization savings that shippers and receivers using railroad freight can pocket.
Arguably, a few of us veteran rail economists can see hypothetical rail customer savings hard dollars in the 15% to 25% cycle-time range for equipment, even higher-dollar customer benefits in the warehousing and supply chain portions of tighter utilization of freight car movements. This is not a promise or a hypothesis. Instead, solid case study results are required for documentation of the value change for customers. If such changes in customer value are captured, it will be the game changer that could power the pivot toward growth.
CAPITAL IS REQUIRED
Opportunities ahead will require some new infusions of capital, in part because the current PSR business model has seen a large exit of capital through dividends and stock buybacks. There has also been an exit of skilled employees followed by a struggle to rehire. There are challenges in reengaging employees (or contractors) as logisticians rather than just train movers. These patterns suggest that the rail executive suites need to find new partners and new ways of continuing their business relevance. It’s doable.
Big-time structural reorganization of rail freight happened between 1976 and about 1996. Rail companies changed again between about 2007 and 2020 into their unique form of trying to become precisely scheduled. Want significant growth and customer centricity? We all probably do. Such transformation may require another phase of serious business adaptation. We have nine years to try for such improvements before 2030 is upon us.
As always, we at Railway Age welcome contrarian opinions and dialogue. What’s your outlook near term and into the decades end? What changes or continuation pattern do you favor? What’s your level of business confidence?
Independent railway economist and Railway Age Contributing Editor Jim Blaze has been in the railroad industry for more than 40 years. Trained in logistics, he served seven years with the Illinois DOT as a Chicago long-range freight planner and almost two years with the USRA technical staff in Washington, D.C. Jim then spent 21 years with Conrail in cross-functional strategic roles from branch line economics to mergers, IT, logistics, and corporate change. He followed this with 20 years of international consulting at rail engineering firm Zeta-Tech Associated. Jim is a Magna Cum Laude Graduate of St Anselm’s College with a master’s degree from the University of Chicago. Married with six children, he lives outside of Philadelphia. “This column reflects my continued passion for the future of railroading as a competitive industry,” says Jim. “Only by occasionally challenging our institutions can we probe for better quality and performance. My opinions are my own, independent of Railway Age. As always, contrary business opinions are welcome.”