America is still mired in recession, but the railroad industry continues to show financial strength.

Most railroads over the past week reported strong improvements in profit and operating efficiency for the first quarter 2011. Stocks of Union Pacific and Kansas City Southern hit 52-week highs this week, while Norfolk Southern’s stock reached an all-time high.

For the first 16 weeks of 2011, U.S. rail carloadings are up 4 percent over the same period in 2010, while intermodal (trailers and containers atop flat cars) are up 8.9 percent.

In expectation of an improving economy, railroads have boosted orders for new freight cars, ordering as many during the first quarter 2011 as for the entire calendar-year 2010.

What’s driving the rails? Fuel efficiency has a lot to do with increased intermodal traffic. The Federal Railroad Administration says railroads are from 1.9 to 5.5 times more fuel efficient than trucks, and with diesel fuel prices spiking, there is a clear competitive advantage available to railroads so long as they can maintain reliable and consistent service quality.