Among big systems, Norfolk Southern leads pack in 2016 traffic

Union Pacific brings up the rear in a year railroads would rather forget
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2016 Class I railroad carloads
With overall rail traffic slumping 5 percent in the U.S. last year, and sliding 3.1 percent in Canada, 2016 will go down as an off year marked by a number of challenges for railroads.

But how did each of the big six systems fare last year?

Norfolk Southern won by losing the least. Its traffic was off just 2.8 percent despite a nearly 18-percent plunge in coal traffic.

A quick glance at NS’s intermodal traffic — which was flat for the year — doesn’t tell the whole story. NS hauled nearly 200,000 fewer trailers in 2016 due to the paring of its Triple Crown RoadRailer network to just the Detroit-Kansas City, Mo., lane. Later this month, NS is expected to release intermodal figures adjusted for the impact of Triple Crown. But one thing’s clear: NS’s overall container business, which was up 6 percent, outpaced the industry.

Union Pacific was the basement-dweller of 2016. UP’s traffic was down by 7 percent as the Omaha-based railroad was stung by a 22-percent decline in coal and a 5 percent drop in intermodal. Grain traffic, up 13 percent, was about the only bright spot for UP.

The other four big systems were lumped in the middle.

Canadian Pacific was down 3.8 percent. There wasn’t much to cheer about among its major traffic segments, but its intermodal business was up 0.8 percent thanks largely to domestic cross-border shipments moving in the Chicago-Toronto-Montreal lane.

BNSF Railway, down 4.9 percent, suffered a 21-percent drop in coal traffic. Its vaunted intermodal business was flat for the year. BNSF’s automotive carloads were up 8 percent thanks in no small part to a second straight year of record auto sales in the U.S.

CSX Transportation wound up down 5.7 percent for the year amid a nearly 20-percent drop in coal traffic. Intermodal was down nearly 3 percent, in part due to share lost to NS, but automotive was up more than 6 percent.

The five publicly traded big Class I railroads, plus Kansas City Southern, will go over their quarterly and yearly traffic in detail during fourth-quarter earnings calls in the third and fourth weeks of January.

NEWSWIRETrains News Wire

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