We continue to get more evidence that the U.S. economy has entered a major downturn. Just last week, I wrote about how U.S. GDP growth numbers have been declining for three quarters in a row, and previously I wrote about how corporate defaults have surged to their highest level since the last financial crisis. Well, now we are getting some very depressing numbers from the rail industry. As you will see below, U.S. rail traffic was down more than 11 percent from a year ago in April. That is an absolutely catastrophic number, and the U.S. rail industry is feeling an enormous amount of pain right now. This also tells us that “the real economy” is really slowing down because less stuff is being shipped by rail all over the nation.
One of the economic commentators that I have really come to respect is Wolf Richter of WolfStreet.com. He has a really sharp eye for what is really going on in the economy and in the financial world, and I find myself quoting him more and more as time goes by. If you have not checked out his site yet, I very much encourage you to do so.
On Wednesday, he posted a very alarming article about what is happening to our rail industry. The kinds of numbers that we have been seeing recently are the kinds of numbers that we would expect if an economic depression was starting. The following is an excerpt from that article…
Total US rail traffic in April plunged 11.8% from a year ago, the Association of American Railroads reported today. Carloads of bulk commodities such as coal, oil, grains, and chemicals plummeted 16.1% to 944,339 units.
The coal industry is in a horrible condition and cannot compete with US natural gas at current prices. Coal-fired power plants are being retired. Demand for steam coal is plunging. Major US coal miners – even the largest one – are now bankrupt. So in April, carloads of coal plummeted 40% from the already beaten-down levels a year ago.
Because rail traffic is down so dramatically, many operators have large numbers of engines that are just sitting around collecting dust. In his article, Wolf Richter shared photographs from Google Earth that show some of the 292 Union Pacific engines that are sitting in the middle of the Arizona desert doing absolutely nothing.
As Wolf Richter pointed out, it costs a lot of money for these engines to just sit there doing nothing…
These engines are expensive pieces of equipment. When they just sit there, not pulling trains, they become “overcapacity,” and they get very expensive. Then there are engineers and other personnel who suddenly become unproductive. Some of them have already been laid off or are getting laid off.