Key Takeaways

  • Freight railroads move the lumber and wood products that directly support America’s construction and lumber industries.
  • In 2016, U.S. Class I railroads moved 306,000 carloads of lumber and wood products (1.1% of total carloads) carrying 24.5 million tons (1.6% of total tons) and earning gross revenue of $1.9 billion (2.9% of total revenue).

America’s construction and lumber industries rely heavily on the country’s freight railroads to move lumber and wood products, including milled lumber and other construction panels such as wood particle, which is used to make furniture.

“These materials are used to create walls, doors, floors, roofs, exterior fencing, landscaping and porches,” Towson University researchers note in a wide-ranging assessment of the freight rail industry and its impact.

Rail shipments of lumber go hand-in-hand with the construction of new homes. In fact, there is an 89% correlation between rail carloads of lumber and U.S. housing starts.

While still short of pre-recession volume, there has been an increase in rail carloads of lumber and wood products since 2014. To meet this demand, freight railroads have invested in specialized equipment to carry more lumber.

Specialized Cars

Lumber is typically transported on one of three types of cars — centerbeams, boxcars and bulkhead flatcars. Centerbeams are preferred for lumber transport because they can be loaded and unloaded simultaneously from both sides, allowing them back into service quicker. The standard centerbeam flatcar can carry about 200,000 pounds or more and is also used to carry other construction materials, such as wallboard.

One centerbeam railcar carries enough framing lumber to build about six homes.

In addition to lumber, railroads carry wood-related materials such as millwork, veneer and plywood. These materials are transported to manufacturers of paneling, furniture, trim, molding and flooring, and to distributors of building materials.