AAR: “Glimmers of Hope” in U.S. Rail Traffic

Written by Andrew Corselli
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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.

Despite a “challenging” 2019 and a still-struggling 2020, the Association of American Railroads (AAR) believes there are “glimmers of hope” in the industry.

U.S. rail volumes fell again in January, reflecting continued softness in manufacturing and global economic weakness made worse by trade uncertainties,” said AAR Senior Vice President John T. Gray. “But there were glimmers of hope. Nine of the 20 carload categories we track had year-over-year gains in January, the most in a year, and several other commodities had carload declines in January that were less pronounced than they’ve been in recent months. It’s too early to say if the worst is behind us, but railroads are hopeful that 2020 will see an improved business climate and rising volumes across much of their traffic base.”

Year-to-Date

Total U.S. carload traffic for the first month of 2020 was 1,165,733 carloads, down 5.9%, or 73,110 carloads, from the same period last year; and 1,245,080 intermodal units, down 5.4%, or 71,081 containers and trailers, from last year.

Total combined U.S. traffic for the first five weeks of 2020 was 2,410,813 carloads and intermodal units, a decrease of 5.6% compared to last year.

January 2020

U.S. railroads originated 1,165,733 carloads in January 2020, down 5.9%, or 73,110 carloads, from January 2019. U.S. railroads also originated 1,245,080 containers and trailers in January 2020, down 5.4%, or 71,081 units, from the same month last year. Combined U.S. carload and intermodal originations in January 2020 were 2,410,813, down 5.6%, or 144,191 carloads and intermodal units from January 2019.

In January 2020, nine of the 20 carload commodity categories tracked by the AAR each month saw carload gains compared with January 2019. These included commodities such as chemicals, up 3,276 carloads or 2.1%; all other carloads, up 2,558 carloads or 9.2%; and grain mill products, up 1,583 carloads or 3.6%. Commodities that saw declines in January 2020 from January 2019 included commodities such as coal, down 55,882 carloads or 13.8%; grain, down 12,908 carloads or 11.6%; and crushed stone, sand & gravel, down 4,973 carloads or 5.3%.

Excluding coal, carloads were down 17,228 carloads, or 2.1%, in January 2020 from January 2019. Excluding coal and grain, carloads were down 4,320 carloads, or 0.6%.

Week Ended Feb. 1, 2020

Total U.S. weekly rail traffic was 510,161 carloads and intermodal units, up 2.4% compared with the same week last year.

Total carloads for the week ended Feb. 1 were 241,339 carloads, down 0.6% compared with the same week in 2019, while U.S. weekly intermodal volume was 268,822 containers and trailers, up 5.2% compared to 2019.

Six of the 10 carload commodity groups posted an increase compared with the same week in 2019. They included commodities such as metallic ores and metals, up 3,636 carloads, to 22,591; motor vehicles and parts, up 1,585 carloads, to 16,909; and farm products excl. grain, and food, up 1,539 carloads, to 16,276. Commodity groups that posted decreases compared with the same week in 2019 included commodities such as coal, down 6,538 carloads, to 69,261; grain, down 2,299 carloads, to 19,158; and miscellaneous carloads, down 544 carloads, to 10,537.

North American rail volume for the week ended Feb. 1, 2020, on 12 reporting U.S., Canadian and Mexican railroads totaled 346,838 carloads, up 2.6% compared with the same week last year, and 362,669 intermodal units, up 10% compared with last year. Total combined weekly rail traffic in North America was 709,507 carloads and intermodal units, up 6.2%. North American rail volume for the first five weeks of 2020 was 3,314,263 carloads and intermodal units, down 3.9% compared with 2019.

Canadian railroads reported 84,949 carloads for the week, up 10.6%, and 73,106 intermodal units, up 18% compared with the same week in 2019. For the first five weeks of 2020, Canadian railroads reported cumulative rail traffic volume of 719,899 carloads, containers and trailers, down 1.4%.

Mexican railroads reported 20,550 carloads for the week, up 11.4% compared with the same week last year, and 20,741 intermodal units, up 70.1%. Cumulative volume on Mexican railroads for the first five weeks of 2020 was 183,551 carloads and intermodal containers and trailers, up 12.5% from the same point last year.

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