AAR: Blame Coal for Low Carloads

Written by Andrew Corselli, Managing Editor
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"Rail intermodal loadings last week were down noticeably more than the norm over the past year," said AAR Senior Vice President John Gray.

The Association of American Railroads (AAR) reported U.S. rail traffic for the week ended Feb. 29, 2020, as well as volumes for February 2020. The numbers are in line with recent trends, but AAR feels that some figures are misleading—with one culprit to blame.

“Total U.S. rail carloads in February were down 7.3% driven almost entirely by coal,” said AAR Senior Vice President John Gray. “Excluding coal, carloads in February were down just 0.8%, their best showing in a year. In February, 10 of the 20 commodity categories we track saw year-over-year carload gains, the most in more than a year.”

Indeed. U.S. railroads originated 927,084 carloads in February 2020, down 7.3%, or 73,058 carloads, from February 2019. U.S. railroads also originated 997,683 containers and trailers in February 2020, down 8.9%, or 96,897 units, from the same month last year. Combined U.S. carload and intermodal originations in February 2020 were 1,924,767, down 8.1%, or 169,955 carloads and intermodal units from February 2019.

“There’s a huge amount of uncertainty regarding the coronavirus situation, but to date the impact on U.S. rail traffic appears limited,” said Gray. “That could change if, for example, sharp declines projected by U.S. ports occur in the weeks ahead. Supply chain disruptions related directly or indirectly to the coronavirus may have played some unquantifiable role in the decline in U.S. intermodal volumes in February, but intermodal has been falling for more than a year. The headwinds facing railroads that pre-date the virus include lingering trade impacts and economic uncertainty; severe winter weather in parts of the country; and blockades in Canada that shut down rail traffic there and impacted domestic traffic too.”

In February 2020, 10 of the 20 carload commodity categories tracked by the AAR each month saw carload gains compared with February 2019. These included commodities such as chemicals, up 3,718 carloads or 2.9%; petroleum & petroleum products, up 3,488 carloads or 7.2%; and all other carloads, up 2,875 carloads or 12%. Commodities that saw declines in February 2020 from February 2019 included commodities such as coal, down 67,770 carloads or 21.1%; crushed stone, sand & gravel, down 10,557 carloads or 12.5%; and grain, down 5,350 carloads or 6.4%.

Excluding coal, carloads were down 5,288 carloads, or 0.8%, in February 2020 from February 2019. Excluding coal and grain, carloads were up 62 carloads, or 0%.

Year-to-Date

Total U.S. carload traffic for the first two months of 2020 was 2,092,817 carloads, down 6.5%, or 146,168 carloads, from the same period last year; and 2,242,763 intermodal units, down 7%, or 167,978 containers and trailers, from last year.

Total combined U.S. traffic for the first nine weeks of 2020 was 4,335,580 carloads and intermodal units, a decrease of 6.8% compared to last year.

Week Ended Feb. 29, 2020

Six of the 10 carload commodity groups posted an increase compared with the same week in 2019. They included commodities such as petroleum and petroleum products, up 1,506 carloads, to 13,389; farm products excl. grain, and food, up 1,071 carloads, to 16,285; and metallic ores and metals, up 654 carloads, to 21,383. Commodity groups that posted decreases compared with the same week in 2019 included commodities such as coal, down 16,712 carloads, to 62,152; nonmetallic minerals, down 3,069 carloads, to 28,909; and miscellaneous carloads, down 343 carloads, to 9,907.

Total U.S. weekly rail traffic was 477,611 carloads and intermodal units, down 9.6% compared with the same week last year. Total carloads for the week ended Feb. 29 were 234,652 carloads, down 6.5% compared with the same week in 2019, while U.S. weekly intermodal volume was 242,959 containers and trailers, down 12.5% compared to 2019.

North American rail volume for the week ended Feb. 29, 2020, on 12 reporting U.S., Canadian and Mexican railroads totaled 335,568 carloads, down 4.2% compared with the same week last year, and 318,401 intermodal units, down 12.4% compared with last year. Total combined weekly rail traffic in North America was 653,969 carloads and intermodal units, down 8.3%. North American rail volume for the first nine weeks of 2020 was 5,932,245 carloads and intermodal units, down 5.1% compared with 2019.

Canadian railroads reported 80,166 carloads for the week, up 3.9%, and 58,116 intermodal units, down 14.4% compared with the same week in 2019. For the first nine weeks of 2020, Canadian railroads reported cumulative rail traffic volume of 1,259,604 carloads, containers and trailers, down 2%.

Mexican railroads reported 20,750 carloads for the week, down 5.8% compared with the same week last year, and 17,326 intermodal units, down 2.7%. Cumulative volume on Mexican railroads for the first nine weeks of 2020 was 337,061 carloads and intermodal containers and trailers, up 7.2% from the same point last year.

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