According to the Association of American Railroads (AAR), one rail sector in particular will be the first to feel the brunt of the coronavirus’ impact.
“Intermodal, rather than other rail sectors, is likely to see the earliest impacts from the coronavirus because large amounts of intermodal traffic go to or come from ports—roughly half of U.S. intermodal is exports or imports,” said AAR Senior Vice President John T. Gray. “Unfortunately, extensive flooding and harsh winter weather last year at this time complicate comparisons between this year and last year.
“That said, the fact that overall intermodal originations last week were the lowest for the same week since 2013 is strong evidence that the coronavirus is impacting intermodal volumes. This is emphasized by the fact four of the five carriers of intermodal traffic from west coast ports, the principal gateways serving the Chinese trade, saw declines in their intermodal business handled. Similar declines in the East also suggest that the problem has begun to spread to other regions of the supply chain.”
Gray was spot-on, as total U.S. weekly rail traffic for the week ended March 14, 2020, was 463,017 carloads and intermodal units, down 7.6% compared with the same week last year, according to figures released by the AAR.
Total carloads for the week ended March 14 were 226,039 carloads, down 5.9% compared with the same week in 2019, while U.S. weekly intermodal volume was 236,978 containers and trailers, down 9.1% 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 grain, up 1,288 carloads, to 19,911; motor vehicles and parts, up 1,180 carloads, to 19,104; and petroleum and petroleum products, up 1,164 carloads, to 13,294. Commodity groups that posted decreases compared with the same week in 2019 included commodities such as coal, down 16,545 carloads, to 55,542; nonmetallic minerals, down 2,468 carloads, to 30,254; and metallic ores and metals, down 992 carloads, to 19,975.
For the first 11 weeks of 2020, U.S. railroads reported cumulative volume of 2,549,159 carloads, down 6.2% from the same point last year; and 2,712,444 intermodal units, down 7.8% from last year. Total combined U.S. traffic for the first 11 weeks of 2020 was 5,261,603 carloads and intermodal units, a decrease of 7% compared to last year.
North American rail volume for the week ended March 14, 2020, on 12 reporting U.S., Canadian and Mexican railroads totaled 332,044 carloads, down 3% compared with the same week last year, and 312,938 intermodal units, down 9.8% compared with last year. Total combined weekly rail traffic in North America was 644,982 carloads and intermodal units, down 6.4%. North American rail volume for the first 11 weeks of 2020 was 7,223,977 carloads and intermodal units, down 5.3% compared with 2019.
Canadian railroads reported 84,612 carloads for the week, up 6.3%, and 60,886 intermodal units, down 12.8% compared with the same week in 2019. For the first 11 weeks of 2020, Canadian railroads reported cumulative rail traffic volume of 1,553,013 carloads, containers and trailers, down 1.6%.
Mexican railroads reported 21,393 carloads for the week, down 5% compared with the same week last year, and 15,074 intermodal units, down 8.9%. Cumulative volume on Mexican railroads for the first 11 weeks of 2020 was 409,361 carloads and intermodal containers and trailers, up 4.2% from the same point last year.