On Sunday, May 5, the Friends of Auburn Heights and Marshall Steam Museum celebrate Train Day and the start of the 2024 season of public events at Auburn Heights. In 2023 the railroad industry in North America constructed and placed in service 44,754 new railroad cars while retiring nearly the same quantity. There were only about 200 new or modernized locomotives placed in service during 2023, which is far below the average of 500 locomotives built or modernized in an average year. The COVID pandemic became a catalyst for an annual average of 77 new locomotives to enter service during the 3 years between 2018 and 2020

How many railcars and how many locomotives were in the North American railroad fleet (both U.S. and Canada) at the end of 2023?

At the end of 2023 there were 37,600 locomotives in active service or on standby in North America. That is down 100 locomotives from 2022; a quantity that has been in decline for the past 5 years as train lengths have become longer. 2017 saw the highest quantity of locomotives in service in the 21st century with 39,500 active locomotives on railroad inventories. The collective locomotive average age is 27.4 years old which is the oldest in recorded history. Estimates reveal about 67% of the North American railroad fleet are main-line, long-haul, road locomotives, 23% are main-line switching locomotives, with the remaining 10% a mixed assortment of second-hand refurbished 6- and 4-axle road or switching locomotives used by short-line railroads.

Railroads are utilizing less DC-powered locomotives (diesel engine turning a DC generator to power DC traction motors for the wheels) due to their increased electrical maintenance requirements. Instead of rebuilding diesel engines and DC generators, railroads are converting existing DC locomotives to AC-power (diesel engine turning an AC generator to power AC traction motors for the wheels) or railroads are buying new AC-powered locomotives. In 2023, 61% of the North American railroad locomotive fleet remained DC-powered. The remaining 39% are AC-powered locomotives (an increase from 2009’s data of 26% AC-powered and 74% DC-powered).

The cost to modernize an existing DC-powered locomotive to AC-power is half the cost of a new AC-powered locomotive provided the cab and frame are in good condition. A locomotive’s useful life is around 75 years if it remains well kept in mainline service and then is transferred to a short-line railroad thus extending service life. Overall, the average age of the North American locomotive fleet is 27.4 years implying a long-term average replacement rate of 500 locomotives per year. The average cost of a new locomotive is $3.5 million. On the near horizon, the future locomotives may use bio-fuels or natural gas in place of diesel fuel. In a decade or so, liquid hydrogen powered locomotives, and various battery-powered concepts for localized switching duty are being experimented with.

Throughout North America there was an estimated 1,637,000 railroad stock cars in active service at the end of 2023. The breakdown is 104,000 box cars, 208,000 flat cars, 195,000 gondolas, 570,000 covered hopper cars, 111,000 open hopper cars, 439,000 tank cars, and 10,000 special purpose freight service cars such as those used to transport Boeing 737 fuselages and NASA rockets. 2023 saw 44,475 new railroad cars constructed which is an increase from the 40,735 railroad cars constructed in 2022. With a useful life of forty to fifty years, most of the freight cars added were to replace an aging car removed from service. The average life of a rolling stock car is 20.2 years. Trinity Industries builds 50% of new freight cars manufactured, Greenbrier supplies 40% of the new car market, Freightcar America provides 6% of new builds with the rest coming from specialized suppliers.

An important factor influencing the replacement of older rolling stock cars is that newer cars are lighter weight while stronger allowing for more weight capacity per car as well as being slightly shorter permitting more cars per train-mile of length without overloading existing railroad track structures and rail capacity ratings. The North American railroad fleet has seen a decrease in coal hopper cars offset by an increase in high-capacity grain hopper cars.

A unit of measure in the railroad industry is the “ton-mile.” It refers to one ton of freight moved over a mile of distance. The unit represents both the volume shipped (in tons) as well as the distance shipped (miles). Railroads account for 29% of the freight moved in North America as compared to trucks which move 43% of the freight shipped. In burning one gallon of diesel fuel, railroads averaged 472 ton-miles while truck averages 151 ton-miles. The difference is largely due to the higher efficiency of a steel wheel on steel rail over rubber tires on concrete/asphalt and that railroads handle larger quantities of a given product with more efficient loading/unloading handling.