Those looking for green shoots will not find it in rail traffic statistics.

Total US Rail Traffic

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Total Industry Charts (US, Canada and Mexico)
Year over Year Percent Change 13 Week Rolling Averages

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The above charts are courtesy of the Railfax Report. Click on link for still more charts.

Given the plunge in rail traffic inquiring minds just might be asking “Where are they putting all those idle rail cars”?

One answer can be found in Railing against wilderness storage in Wallowas.

Part of a short-line railroad in Oregon’s ruggedly beautiful Wallowa County has become a 30-mile-long parking lot for about 700 idled railcars, some blighted with graffiti.

Many residents aren’t happy.

David Stein, for one, said mustard-yellow centerbeam lumber cars along tracks owned by the Wallowa Union Railroad have spoiled his view of mountains, meadows and pine forests from his home outside Enterprise.

“What can you see?” Stein, 54, asked in disgust. “Trains!”

The situation is a snapshot of a national picture. The economic slump has idled about 70,000 Union Pacific railcars, now sidetracked wherever space can be found, said Zoe Richmond, a Union Pacific spokeswoman in Roseville, Calif. The railroad has also furloughed 5,000 of its 48,000 workers. Other railroads are in the same predicament, she said.

Back to back, Union Pacific’s idled railcars would reach from Seattle to Albuquerque, N.M.

In April, Union Pacific struck a three-year deal with Union and Wallowa counties — owners of the Wallowa Union Railroad — to store as many as 1,800 railcars on unused tracks along the foothills fronting the granite teeth of the Eagle Cap Wilderness.

In return, the counties will receive $59,000 a month to pay down debt they racked up to buy the rail line in 2002 — a sore point with residents who opposed the purchase in the first place.

The line almost disappeared in 2002, when Idaho Northern signed a contract with a Montana salvage company to tear up 45 miles of ties and rail. Wallowa County officials stepped in and denied the company a salvage permit.

Soon after, Wallowa and Union counties bought the railroad for $6.5 million, hoping to generate revenue by hauling logs, freight and tourists.

But it hasn’t worked out that way. Timber sales on the Wallowa-Whitman and Umatilla national forests never recovered, leaving timber hauling at a standstill.

the counties still owe $898,000 — plus interest that could total $800,000 — to the Oregon Economic & Community Development Department, said Mike Hayward, a Wallowa County commissioner.

Back to back, Union Pacific’s idled railcars would reach from Seattle to Albuquerque, N.M. However, Union Pacific is just one line.


BNSF-Burlington Northern Santa Fe
CNI-Canadian National
CP-Canadian Pacific
KSU-Kansas City Southern
NSC-Norfolk Southern
UNP-Union Pacific

Idle rail cars are going to be sitting somewhere for quite some time. The same holds true for automobiles. Inquiring minds might also be interested in a January collection of Unsold Car Images From Around The World.

Mike “Mish” Shedlock
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