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Watching the economy rumbling by

If you want to get a good snapshot of Elkhart's economy – and at least a glimpse of how the recession is affecting national commerce – pull up a chair at the National New York Central Railroad Museum with Ron Troyer.

The museum, you see, is just down the track from the Norfolk Southern Corp.'s Elkhart Railyard. By watching the number of trains, their length and the type of freight they're carrying, Troyer said, a discerning viewer can get a pretty good idea of what products are still selling and which aren't.

"We can monitor the economy and commerce by what we see here," said Troyer, the rail museum's coordinator as well as an Elkhart city councilman. "… You can tell how many French fries they're selling in New York City by watching how many McDonald's cars roll by."

Based on his admittedly anecdotal observations, Troyer said, overall rail traffic through the busy Elkhart hub is down.

"Just yesterday, we saw a train pulling four cars of plastic beads (for use in manufacturing)," he said. "In the heyday, that train would have been pulling 20 cars."

And it's obvious the automotive industry is hurting, he said, given the dearth of vehicle carriers and railcars toting auto parts. "We just don't see many of those at all anymore," he said.

But Troyer said some industries seem to be weathering the storm just fine.

"Your double-stacks and the kinds that haul the semitrailers, those are still going superstrong, especially the UPS and mail-hauling trains," he said. "… And coal trains, they're running as good as if it was the dead of winter."

For a more fact-based assessment, I spoke with Rudy Husband, a spokesman for Norfolk Southern, who confirmed the basics of Troyer's eyeball findings.

"Our traffic volumes as compared to last year are down about 20 percent, and you can see that in Elkhart," he said. "We have certainly cut a lot of trains, and a lot of the trains are shorter than what they've normally been."

Image: Train passes through

John Brecher / msnbc.com

A train passes through Elkhart in March.

As a result of the slowdown, the company has had to lay laid off 23 Elkhart-based employees, though it still has about 550 on the payroll there, most of them engineers and conductors. All told, the company has "furloughed" about 1,200 employees, he said.

Despite the economic slowdown, Norfolk Southern still runs between 100 and 120 trains a day through its Elkhart Railyard., where individual cars and chains of cars are "classified" – or sorted -- for outbound destinations or local delivery.

Husband said that the rail line that passes through Elkhart, providing service between Chicago and Toledo, Ohio, "is the busiest line segment in our system " and that the Elkhart Railyard – -- the granddaddy of the 28 "classification yards" in the Norfolk Southern network – -- "is similar to what O'Hare is like as an airport."

The Elkhart yard uses a fascinating mix of the new and old technologies to divvy up the trains.

A locomotive pushes a railcar or cars up a "hump" in the center of the yard, then lets go, leaving it to gravity and railroad computer operators to do the rest. The cars roll down the hump and are guided onto specific track segments by operators in the yard's control tower, then brought gently to a stop by an electronic braking system.

Though times are hard in this railroad town, which has had rail service ever since 1833, Husband said that the company expects "eventually the economy is going to turn around and things are going to improve."

But asked if the Norfolk Southern brain trust had any idea when that might happen, he said he didn't.

"We really stay out of the projecting business," Husband said. "… Our CEO Charles Moorman likes to say that his crystal ball is just as murky as everybody else's."

The proprietors of the Grand Elk Railroad, a new rail line that began hauling freight between Elkhart and Grand Rapids, Mich., in March, have no clearer notion of when the local economy will pick up. But General Manager Rodney Gordon said that starting a railroad serving one of the most hard-hit areas in the country made perfect business sense no matter the current conditions.

"For us it's a no-brainer, because even though times are down, they're not going to stay down," he said. "When it does improve, we're nimble and ready to go." (Click here to read an Elkhart Truth report on the short line railroad's operations.) [

Gordon said the poor economy allowed the company, a subsidiary of Watco Transportation Services Inc. of Pittsburg, Kansas, to cherry-pick 58 employees from more than 3,600 applications, providing it with an experienced workforce from the get- go. (That didn't do much to lift spirits in Elkhart, though, as most of the positions are located in Kalamazoo, Mich., and Grand Rapids.)

But perhaps the locals and recession watchers around the country can draw some comfort in the fact that Grand Elk already is turning a profit on the operation on the 123 miles of track it is leasing from Norfolk Southern, which hauls a variety of commodities, ranging from agricultural products to aggregate (the sand and stone mixture used in concrete) and other building material.

"This line has a very good mix of freight, and that was one of the big attractions, that we're not relying on one commodity," Gordon said. "Right now we're profitable, but the margin is nowhere what we would like it to be. We're banking that it will be in the future."

Do you live in a railroad town? If so, have you noticed any difference in traffic levels since the recession took hold? Please share your observations by leaving a comment below.