Should that set the tone for 2014 in total, the year will prove better than 2013, as AAR also noted U.S. freight carload volume for 2013 fell shy of 2012 levels, though U.S. intermodal volume, not surprisingly, ended with a solid gain.
U.S. freight carload volume for the first week of 2014 rose 2.1% measured against th comparable week in 2013, while U.S. intermodal volume growth continued its winning streak, up 4.8% for the week. Total combined U.S. traffic for the first week of 2014 was up 3.2% from 2013's first week.
Seven of 10 carload commodity groups AAR tracks on a weekly basis posted increases compared with the same week in 2013, including petroleum and petroleum products, up 20.2%, nonmetallic minerals and products, up 17.8%, and chemicals, up 13%. Declining commodity groups included motor vehicles and parts, down 27%, and metallic ores and metals, down 10.7%.
Canadian freight carload volume during the first week of 2014, by contrast, dropped 7.4%, and Canadian intermodal volume, while gaining, did so modestly, up 0.4%. Mexican freight carload volume for the week ending Jan. 4 rose 3.4%, but Mexican intermodal volume plunged 12.7%.
Combined North American freight carload traffic for the first week of 2014 on 13 reporting U.S., Canadian, and Mexican railroads edged up 0.1% when measured against its 2013 counterpart. Combined North American intermodal volume advanced 3.5%.
AAR also noted December U.S. rail traffic was mixed, mirroring the full year's results, with freight carload traffic down 0.9% compared with December 2012, but intermodal up 8% from the year-ago period.
AAR emphasized that U.S. intermodal volume for 2013 was "the highest on record," up 4.6% over 2012 levels. U.S. freight carload volume, hampered by declining coal shipments, slipped 0.5%.
Petroleum and petroleum products led the yearly gainers, up 31.1%. Also doing well were crushed stone, gravel and sand, up 8.3%, motor vehicles and parts, up 5.1%, and waste and nonferrous scrap, up 9.1%. Coal led the decliners, down 4.3%, joined by grain, down 8%, and metallic ores, down 9.9%.
The commodities with the largest carload declines in 2013 compared with 2012 were: coal, down 256,751 carloads or 4.3 percent; grain, down 81,309 carloads or 8 percent, and metallic ores, down 37,068 carloads or 9.9 percent.
"2013 ended the way it began — strong intermodal, weak coal, and mixed performance for other commodities, resulting in a year for rail traffic that could have been much better but also could have been much worse," said AAR Senior Vice President John T. Gray. "A variety of indicators seem to be saying that the economy is slowly strengthening; a trend we expect to continue in 2014."