Monday, April 09, 2012

U.S. freight traffic remains mixed: AAR

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U.S. freight traffic continued its split personality impersonation spanning most of 2012 for the week ending March 31, 2012.

The Association of American Railroads reported U.S. freight carload traffic fell 6.2% for the week measured against the comparable week in 2011, but U.S. intermodal continued its robust growth, up 3.6% compared with the same week last year.

AAR said 12 of the 20 carload commodity groups it measures posted increases compared with the same week in 2011 led by petroleum products, up 38.2%, motor vehicles and equipment, up 17.2%, and metals and products, up 16.9%. Declining commodity groups were paced by farm products excluding grain, down 19.7%, nonmetallic minerals, down 18.9%, and (significantly) coal, down 18.2%, AAR said before the Passover/Easter holidays.

Canadian freight carload traffic again found its own path, up 0.8% for the week ending March 31 compared with a year ago. Canadian intermodal volume also advanced, up 12.4%, compared with a year ago. Mexican freight moves mirroed their U.S. counterparts, with freight carload traffic down 3.4% for the week compared with a year ago, but intermodal up 27.8% over last year.

For the month of March, AAR said U.S. freight carload traffic was down 5.8% compared with March 2011, while U.S. intermodal volume was up 3.5%. Commodities with carload declines in March were led by coal, 15.8% from a month ago, a decline AAR acknowledged as a factor weighing on overall volume.

"There is no denying that coal is a crucial commodity for railroads, and there's also no denying that recent declines in coal traffic are presenting significant challenges to railroads right now," said AAR Senior Vice President John T. Gray. "That said, it's encouraging that many commodities that are better indicators of the state of the economy than coal is — things like motor vehicles, lumber and wood products, and crushed stone — saw higher rail carloadings in March."

For the first 13 weeks of 2012, U.S. freight carload volume is down 2.5% measured against the comparable period in 2011, while U.S. intermodal has moved in the other direction, up 2.5%.

Combined North American rail volume for the first 13 weeks of 2012 on 13 reporting U.S., Canadian, and Mexican railroads, weighted by U.S. freight rail performance, mimic the U.S. trend, with freight carload volume down 1.1% and intermodal volume up 3.8%.