In early March, Railinc Senior Data Scientist David Humphrey presented the 2024 railcar and locomotive reviews at the Rail Equipment Finance Conference in La Quinta, California. Railinc Corporate Communications sat down with David post-conference to delve into some of the most significant takeaways from this year’s data.

Corporate Communications (CC): What were some of the important trends you touched on when presenting this year’s reviews?

David Humphrey (DH): The tank car count has been level for the past four years, so it’s possible we’re seeing the industry plateau with the amount of tank cars in the fleet. In the general service, non-pressurized tank car space, both new build and retrofit DOT 117s are being added to the fleet. These cars carry ethanol and crude oil. At the end of 2014, there were none of these cars in the fleet. The group is now up to 98,000.

There are also several older, smaller covered hoppers that are methodically aging out of the fleet. There are about 209,000 cars – a combination of box cars and grain cars – that will be aging out of the fleet over the next decade.

CC: What changes in the revenue-earning fleet are we seeing with the covered hoppers?

DH: As the grain covered hoppers are falling out, about every five cars or so, they need to be replaced by four new higher capacity covered hoppers to keep up with the grain market. These cars all came into the fleet at about the same time, and they showed up in disproportionately large numbers. As they’ve aged through their 50-year life, they have had a disproportionate impact on the fleet. Box cars are leaving the fleet at a rate of about 100 per week, and grain cars are retiring at about 80 per week.

CC: Are you able to make any predictions for the revenue-earning fleet based on this year’s data?

DH: There has been a significant number of gondolas built the last two years. Roughly half of these are mill gondolas that take raw material into steel mills. The other half are coil gons, which take the finished product of steel away from the mills. Steel production has changed over the years and the new production method – via electric arc furnace rather than blast furnace – may be leading to an increase in steel production in the United States.

The last interesting note is about coal cars. The peak shipment of coal was 7.5 million carloads in 2008. That number has steadily gone down over the years; we’re now at about 3.4 million carloads. No new coal cars have been added in the past eight years. We do still need coal to create steel – so a need for new coal cars may come many years in the future.