The total carload traffic on US railroads in 2009 reached the lowest level since 1988, according to the Association of American Railroads (AAR).

In 2009, carload traffic dropped by 16.1% compared with 2008 and 18.2% compared with 2007, the lowest since the AAA’s data series began 21 years ago.

The figures are from the AAA’s January Rail Time Indicators report that includes monthly numbers for December and 2009 annual totals for freight railroad traffic.

For the month of December, the 2009 figure is a 4.1% drop compared with 2008 and 17.6% drop compared with 2007, mainly due to a drop in coal carloadings.

The US rail intermodal traffic, which covers the movement of truck trailers and shipping containers by rail, reported a 14.1% drop from 2008 and a 17.7% drop from 2007.

AAR senior vice-president of policy and economics John Gray said railroads are happy to have 2009 behind them.

“Last year saw declines, most of them quite steep, in every major category of rail carload traffic as well as intermodal. However, we’re seeing signs that the economy is improving,” Gray said.