The North American steel industry might decry
imports, but don't expect to hear any anti-import rhetoric from
the railroad industry.
Perhaps more than any other factor, imports
have helped drive profits and shipments to record levels in
recent years, railroad industry sources said. And many believe
they are responsible for much of the industry's long-term
"From tennis shoes to television sets
. . . there's been a fairly significant sea change
where manufacturing is moving offshore, and the goods that
Americans desire are coming back to us in containers," said a
spokesman for Jacksonville, Fla.,-based CSX Corp.
Railroad companies ship many of those
imported goods to population centers around the country. And
while overall rail shipments might have declined recently,
almost no one expects imports to fall significantly in the long
"Things that are shipped into Los Angeles
have to be moved to interior areas. And things that are made in
industrial areas in the interior have to make it to port," said
a spokesman for the Association of American Railroads. "Last
year was probably the best year in the recent history of the
Besides global trade, increased reliance on
coal as an energy source in the United States also is driving
business, sources said. And the long distances traveled and
heavy volumes carried by today's trains mean more spending on
longer rail segments capable of carrying heavier loads. "Your
typical coal car holds 100 tons. You think of a train being 80
cars long; that's a lot tonnage," the CSX spokesman said.
Railroads also are investing heavily in
"long-passing sidings," new tracks that parallel existing
routes and act almost like a passing lane on highways. The
sidings allow faster-moving container trains, for example, to
pass slower, heavier coal trains without either having to
High fuel prices, crowded highways and a
shortage of skilled truck drivers also are pushing more tonnage
away from trucks and onto railcars, railroad sources said.
Trains get better gas mileage simply because steel wheels on
steel rails have a lower coefficient of friction than tires on
the road, they said. "As fuel prices go up, this provides
railroads with a bit of a cost advantage over highways," the
Association of American Railroads spokesman said. "And some
(trucking) companies report more than 100-percent turnover in
drivers each year."
But the trucking and railroad industries
aren't always competitors, sources said. Railroads are
increasingly being used for long-distance travel from ports to
distribution centers, while some trucking companies are
focusing their business more on the final 100 to 200 miles of
the journey to local consumers. This "intermodal" traffic is
the fastest-growing segment of the rail business.
"There's a lot of business for both of us,"
the CSX spokesman said.