Commodities & Metals

Rail Cars Fill Up with Crude Oil, While Grain and Coal Shipments Remain Soft

Railroad Oil Tank Cars
Source: Thinkstock
In its weekly report issued yesterday, the Association of American Railroads (AAR) noted that rail carloads of petroleum rose 50.8% in the week, compared to the same week a year ago. For the year to date, U.S. railroads have hauled 54.1% more petroleum than they did a year ago.

The numbers are truly impressive. The AAR counted 259,141 petroleum carloads last week. Just over a year ago, the count was just shy of 120,000 carloads for the comparable week. And that represented a rise of nearly 30% from the same week in 2011. Rail transportation of crude oil and petroleum products has nearly tripled in three years.

Coal shipments by rail still outnumber petroleum shipments by about eight to one, but coal carloads are down 5.6% year-to-date, compared with last year. And the number of carloads of grain has fallen 16% in the same period.

Among the railroads, the big winner is the Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF), which is owned by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc. (NYSE: BRK-A) and plies the rails along the northern tier, including the oil-producing states of North Dakota and Montana. Railroads that depend more heavily on coal shipments, like CSX Corp. (NYSE: CSX), Norfolk Southern Corp. (NYSE: NSC) and Union Pacific Corp. (NYSE: UNP), have all experienced double-digit percentage drops in coal ships, weighing on revenues and profits.