Taking into account last year’s pandemic-related rail volume drop, “rail traffic has clearly rebounded” and “recent signs of strength in manufacturing are good signs for railroads, too,” Association of American Railroads Senior Vice President John T. Gray noted in the AAR traffic report for March 2021 and the week ending April 3, 2021.
In March 2021, U.S. railroads originated 1,156,158 carloads, rising 4.1%, or 45,504 carloads, and 1,430,331 intermodal units, increasing 24%, or 276,781 containers and trailers, from the same month last year. Combined, U.S. carload and intermodal originations came in at 2,586,489, up 14.2%, or 322,285 carloads and intermodal units, compared with March 2020.
“For some rail traffic categories, percentage changes for the current month compared with the same month in 2020 are inflated because of the widespread shutdowns—and subsequent large reduction in rail volumes—that impacted many economic sectors last year at this time,” AAR explained in its report released April 7.
(For a roundup of 2020 traffic, including the pandemic-related impacts, see “AAR: ‘Railroads Looking to the Future.’”)
Last month, 11 of the 20 carload commodity categories tracked by AAR saw carload gains vs. March 2020. These included grain, up 22.1%, or 23,144 carloads; coal, up 7.6%, or 22,010 carloads; and motor vehicles and parts, up 16.3%, or 10,043 carloads. Commodities that saw declines in March 2021 compared with the same month last year included chemicals, down 4.8%, or 7,857 carloads; petroleum and petroleum products, down 8.5%, or 5,073 carloads; and crushed stone, sand and gravel, down 4%, or 3,903 carloads.
Excluding coal, carloads were up 23,494, or 2.9%, in March 2021 vs. March 2020. Excluding coal and grain, carloads were up 350, or 0%.
Total U.S. carload traffic for the first three months of 2021 was 2,911,097 carloads, falling 2.6%, or 77,267 carloads, from the same period last year; and 3,619,546 intermodal units, rising 13.2%, or 421,513 containers and trailers, compared with last year.
Total combined U.S. traffic for the first 13 weeks of 2021 was 6,530,643 carloads and intermodal units, a 5.6% increase compared with the same point last year.
Week 13 (Ending April 3, 2021)
Total U.S. weekly rail traffic was 515,562 carloads and intermodal units, increasing 20% vs. the same week last year.
Total carloads came in at 229,814 for the week ending April 3, up 8.8% compared with the same week in 2020, while U.S. weekly intermodal volume was 285,748 containers and trailers, up 31% compared with 2020.
Six of the 10 carload commodity groups posted an increase vs. the same week in 2020. They included motor vehicles and parts, up 9,407 carloads, to 12,597; grain, up 4,877 carloads, to 25,679; and chemicals, up 2,626 carloads, to 32,901. Commodity groups that posted decreases compared with the same week in 2020 included nonmetallic minerals, down 770 carloads, to 30,760; miscellaneous carloads, down 323 carloads, to 10,023; and forest products, down 135 carloads, to 9,791.
North American rail volume for the week ending April 3, 2021, on 12 reporting U.S., Canadian and Mexican railroads totaled 324,672 carloads, up 8.1% compared with the same week last year, and 373,820 intermodal units, up 27.2% compared with last year. Total combined weekly rail traffic in North America was 698,492 carloads and intermodal units, up 17.6%. North American rail volume for the first 13 weeks of 2021 was 8,969,794 carloads and intermodal units, up 5.2% vs. 2020.
Canadian railroads reported 77,646 carloads for the week, a 4.6% rise, and 74,309 intermodal units, a 17% increase, compared with the same week in 2020. For the first 13 weeks of 2021, they reported cumulative rail traffic volume of 1,965,824 carloads, containers and trailers, up 6.5%.
Mexican railroads reported 17,212 carloads for the week, up 16.3% from the same point last year, and 13,763 intermodal units, up 13.1%. Their cumulative volume for the first 13 weeks of 2021 was 473,327 carloads and intermodal containers and trailers, down 4.4% compared with the same week in 2020.