Union Pacific leads decline in third quarter rail traffic

Canadian Pacific is the only large railroad to post traffic gains for the third quarter
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In a down year for North American rail volumes, Union Pacific led the third quarter decline in traffic among the six big systems, with its intermodal volume slumping 12% and its overall carloads off by 9%.

Among the big four U.S. systems, BNSF Railway fared the best in the third quarter. Its intermodal volume was off 1.4%, while its overall traffic was down 2.9%.

The divergence between BNSF and UP volumes in the West comes as UP continues to implement its version of Precision Scheduled Railroading. BNSF remains the lone holdout against the operating model that has spread to the other U.S. Class I railroad systems.

Only one railroad — Canadian Pacific — showed third-quarter gains in intermodal and overall traffic. CP’s overall volume was up 1.6%, with intermodal up 4.5%, according to its Association of American Railroads Week 39 carload report.

Actual quarterly volume will differ slightly, as the quarter ended Sept. 30 but Week 39 ended Sept. 28.

Canadian rail traffic remained stronger than U.S. volumes in the quarter, continuing the trend so far this year. Canadian National’s overall volume was essentially flat, at a decline of 0.4%, while its intermodal traffic was up 1% in the quarter.

In the Eastern U.S., Norfolk Southern’s quarterly volume declined 6% overall, while intermodal was down 5.1%.

CSX Transportation’s overall volume declined 5.6%. The railroad’s intermodal volume was off 9.1%, thanks in part to major cutbacks in 2017 and 2018 that shed about 15% of intermodal volume as CSX scuttled its high-cost, low-margin hub-and-spoke intermodal system.

Overall traffic volume on the smallest Class I, Kansas City Southern, was down 0.6%. KCS intermodal volume was down 3.3% for the quarter to date, according to data from Susquehanna Financial Group.

The publicly traded Class I railroads will report their quarterly earnings results and official quarterly volumes later this month.

Railroad analysts say the dip in rail traffic this year is related to slowing economic growth, the impact of the U.S.-China trade dispute on the manufacturing and agricultural sectors, overcapacity in the trucking industry, and the implementation of PSR in the U.S.
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