AAR: Rail Traffic Remains ‘Uncertain’

Written by Marybeth Luczak, Executive Editor
(Photograph Courtesy of BNSF, via LinkedIn)

(Photograph Courtesy of BNSF, via LinkedIn)

“Rail traffic, although improving, remains in uncertain territory along with the economy,” Association of American Railroads (AAR) Senior Vice President John T. Gray reported Oct. 4. While intermodal had “the best volume month of the year in September,” he said, “a sustained boost across rail categories will require stronger overall industrial growth.”

U.S. railroads originated 921,716 carloads in September 2023, up 2.3%, or 20,754 carloads, from September 2022, according to AAR’s latest rail traffic report covering September and the week ending Sept. 30, 2023. They also originated 1,008,896 containers and trailers last month, up 0.7%, or 7,096 units, from September 2022. Combined U.S. carload and intermodal originations last month were 1,930,612, up 1.5%, or 27,850 carloads and intermodal units from the same point in 2022.

In comparison, August 2023 “was the third straight month in which total year-over-year U.S. rail carloads have fallen,” according to AAR.

In September 2023, 13 of the 20 carload commodity categories tracked by AAR each month saw carload gains compared with the prior-year period. These included motor vehicles and parts, rising 8,327 carloads or 15.2%; petroleum and petroleum products, up 5,547 carloads or 16.0%; and chemicals, up 5,530 carloads or 4.6%. Commodities that saw declines last month included grain, down 6,651 carloads or 9.0%; coal, down 4,012 carloads or 1.4% and coke, down 1,062 carloads or 9.1%.

According to John T. Gray, grain shipments “improved slightly from extremely low summer levels, while chemicals and petroleum products had reasonably solid months.” Additionally, “intermodal is showing, after three years, that ’peak season’ still exists although much more reserved and occurring somewhat later than past peaks,” he noted.

Excluding coal, carloads were up 24,766, or 4.0%, in September 2023 from September 2022. Excluding coal and grain, carloads were up 31,417, or 5.7%.

Total U.S. carload traffic for the first nine months of 2023 came in at 8,774,830 carloads, up 0.3%, or 24,723 carloads, from the same period in 2022; and 9,329,334 intermodal units, down 8.2%, or 831,733 containers and trailers, from last year.

Total combined U.S. traffic for the first 39 weeks of this year was 18,104,164 carloads and intermodal units, a 4.3% decrease from 2022.

Week Ending Sept. 30, 2023

Total U.S. weekly rail traffic for the week ending Sept. 30, 2023, was 500,154 carloads and intermodal units, up 2.8% compared with the same week last year.

Total carloads for the week came in at 235,988, up 3.7% compared with the same week in 2022, and U.S. weekly intermodal volume came in at 264,166 containers and trailers, up 2.0% compared with 2022. This is the third consecutive week of gains in both categories.

Nine of the 10 carload commodity groups posted an increase compared with the same week in 2022. They included metallic ores and metals, up 2,681 carloads, to 23,142; chemicals, up 2,151 carloads, to 31,750; and motor vehicles and parts, up 1,403 carloads, to 15,973. One commodity group posted a decline: grain, down 2,417 carloads, to 18,501.

North American rail volume for the week ending Sept. 30, 2023, on 10 reporting U.S., Canadian and Mexican railroads totaled 350,483 carloads, up 3.6% vs. the same week last year, and 346,771 intermodal units, down 1.5% vs. last year. Total combined weekly rail traffic in North America was 697,254 carloads and intermodal units, up 1.0%. North American rail volume for the first 39 weeks of this year was 25,361,005 carloads and intermodal units, down 3.8% vs. 2022.

Canadian railroads reported 97,896 carloads for the week ending Sept. 30, 2023, up 2.1%, and 70,662 intermodal units, down 13.6% from the same week last year. For the first 39 weeks of 2023, they reported cumulative rail traffic volume of 6,175,243 carloads, containers and trailers, down 3.4%.

Mexican railroads reported 16,599 carloads for the week ending Sept. 30, 2023, up 12.2% compared with the same point last year, and 11,943 intermodal units, up 7.4%. Their cumulative volume for the first 39 weeks of this year was 1,081,598 carloads and intermodal containers and trailers, up 3.0% from 2022.

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