DETROIT -- Across the Rust Belt, thousands of freshly built cars, pickups and SUVs are parked, waiting for a ride that’s late.
A brutal winter and the highest automotive production in a decade have strained railroads and moved automakers to use more expensive over-the-road trucks to get their vehicles to dealerships.
Railroads in the lower Great Lakes region took a substantial hit from severe winter weather. Record or near record snowfalls impaired train movements and their crews’ ability to get to work. Subfreezing temperatures also reduce the number of rail cars an engine can pull.
Residual congestion from the weather remains, especially for CSX Transportation. According to performance statistics reported to the Association of American Railroads, the average speeds of CSX multilevel trains -- those mainly handling auto carriers -- were off 18 percent during much of March compared with a year ago. Other railroads -- Norfolk Southern, BNSF Railway and Union Pacific -- also reported reduced average speeds in March.
“This has been a long winter,” said Carla Groleau, a CSX spokeswoman. “As the weather continues to improve, we hope our operations will continue to improve, too. We’re certainly moving as safely and swiftly as we can.”
Making the rail issues worse is the volume of vehicles set for shipment. North American light-vehicle production hit almost 16.2 million units last year, the highest level since 2002. In 2014, light-vehicle production is expected to reach almost 17.3 million units.
Nearly all major automakers, especially those with factories in the Midwest, say their rail deliveries are still delayed. Though automakers are reluctant to talk about their strategies to keep vehicles flowing to dealerships, many say they have turned to over-the-road trucks. Honda, Chrysler and Toyota acknowledge boosting their reliance on trucks in recent weeks.
Chrysler Group, for example, ships many of the vehicles it produces in the Midwest from rail yards in Toledo, Ohio, but because of the weather and a shortage of auto-hauling rail cars, it’s using trucks and other rail routes to avoid delays, a spokeswoman said.
A spokesman for General Motors said the company is “coping with slowing throughput” of the continent’s rail network, but said it expects the backlog to abate as the weather improves.
Toyota Motor Corp. has “adopted countermeasures” because of the rail delays. Those include shipping some Corollas from the factory in Cambridge, Ontario, by truck to dealers in places such as Chicago and Buffalo, “where the routes seem to make the most sense,” spokesman Victor Vanov said.
“We’re weathering it out until conditions improve,” Vanov said. So far, production schedules have not changed, but Toyota is in “constant communications with the railroads to find out what their situation is.”