Rails hit by floods slowly returning to normal

Shipments of coal and other freight in the Midwest are still being delayed almost a month after record-breaking floods decimated the landscape from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, to Hannibal, Mo.

Data from the railroad industry's trade group show the floods reduced shipments of coal, grains and other goods as demand for those commodities remains high.

Parts of two rail lines operated by BNSF Railway, a subsidiary of Burlington Northern Santa Fe Corp., are under water and remain closed.

“We're still trying to get train service back to normal,” said Steven Forsberg, a spokesman for BNSF.

Small local lines in hard-hit states such as Iowa and Wisconsin are still struggling with the flood's aftermath.

The impact of the historic floods also can be seen in rail shipping data. In June, freight rail shipments dropped 3.6 percent compared to June 2007, according to the Association of American Railroads, with flooding responsible for much of the decline.

Shipments of coal fell 3.2 percent, after rising for much of the year, according to AAR spokesman Tom White. Grain and ethanol shipments, while higher than last year, were lower than expected because of flood-related delays and production cuts.

Shipments began to rebound this week as rail operators cleared out backlogs, White said. Rail cargoes increased 1.1 percent in the week ended July 5, according to data released Thursday.

Most of the affected industries say that shipping problems have eased.

“We think things are pretty much back to normal,” said Luke Popovich, spokesman for the National Mining Association, which represents Arch Coal Inc., Peabody Energy Corp. and others.

Mike Smid, chief executive of the nation's largest trucker, YRC North American Transportation, said delays “settled down” last week.

“The rails are running regular schedules, but right now they are still a bit slow,” Smid said. “But major thoroughfares and major arteries in the Midwest are clear, and our trucks are running on schedule.”