U.S. rail freight traffic appears to be on an upswing, based on figures released by the Association of American Railroads for the week ended April 27. The month of April 2019, though down compared to the prior-year period, was much improved over March 2019. Year to date, traffic is down compared to the prior-year four-month period, but the gap appears to be narrowing.
“[U.S.] rail traffic in April was significantly improved compared with March, in part because railroads affected by severe flooding in the Midwest were able to return their operations more toward normal,” said AAR Senior Vice President of Policy and Economics John T. Gray. “It appears that some of the economic uncertainty that was prevalent earlier in the first quarter has dissipated, although concerns about trade issues may still be having an impact on rail volumes. However, as long as the economy continues to show life, it’s reasonable to think that rail traffic volumes will continue to improve in the coming months.”
Month of April
U.S. railroads originated 1,041,544 carloads in April 2019, down 0.9%, or 9,130 carloads, from April 2018. U.S. railroads also originated 1,056,146 containers and trailers in April 2019, down 3.9%, or 42,832 units, from the same month last year. Combined U.S. carload and intermodal originations in April 2019 were 2,097,690, down 2.4%, or 51,962 carloads and intermodal units from April 2018.
In April 2019, six of the 20 carload commodity categories tracked by the AAR saw gains compared with April 2018. Among these were petroleum and petroleum products, up 11,758 carloads or 29.5%; coal, up 5,732 carloads or 1.8%; and metallic ores, up 1,161 carloads or 5.0%. Among the commodities that saw declines in April 2019 from April 2018 were crushed stone, sand & gravel, down 10,750 carloads or 10.1%; grain, down 4,605 carloads or 4.7%; and motor vehicles and parts, down 3,875 carloads or 5.4%.
Excluding coal, carloads were down 14,862 carloads, or 2.0%, in April 2019, compared to April 2018. Excluding coal and grain, carloads were down 10,257 carloads, or 1.6%.
Year to Date
Total U.S. carload traffic for the first four months (17 weeks) of 2019 was 4,237,153 carloads, down 2.5%, or 109,930 carloads, from the same period last year; and 4,532,603 intermodal units, down 1.4%, or 62,724 containers and trailers, from last year. Total combined U.S. traffic for the first 17 weeks of 2019 was 8,769,756 carloads and intermodal units, a decrease of 1.9% compared to last year.
Week Ending April 27, 2019
Total U.S. weekly rail traffic was 533,190 carloads and intermodal units, down 3.3% compared with the same week last year.
Total carloads for the week ending April 27 were 267,316 carloads, up 0.4% compared with the same week in 2018, while U.S. weekly intermodal volume was 265,874 containers and trailers, down 6.7% compared to 2018.
Five of the 10 carload commodity groups posted an increase compared with the same week in 2018. Among them were petroleum and petroleum products, up 2,775 carloads, to 13,666; coal, up 2,127 carloads, to 80,870; and chemicals, up 1,130 carloads, to 34,039. Commodity groups that posted decreases compared with the same week in 2018 included nonmetallic minerals, down 3,648 carloads, to 37,389; motor vehicles and parts, down 1,482 carloads, to 15,793; and farm products excluding grain, and food, down 705 carloads, to 15,518.
North American rail volume for the week ending April 27, 2019, on 12 reporting U.S., Canadian and Mexican railroads totaled 376,507 carloads, up 1.3% compared with the same week last year, and 354,981 intermodal units, down 4.3% compared with last year. Total combined weekly rail traffic in North America was 731,488 carloads and intermodal units, down 1.5%. North American rail volume for the first 17 weeks of 2019 was 11,904,356 carloads and intermodal units, down 1.2% compared with 2018.
Canadian railroads reported 88,748 carloads for the week, up 5.4%, and 71,660 intermodal units, up 4.8% compared with the same week in 2018. For the first 17 weeks of 2019, Canadian railroads reported cumulative rail traffic volume of 2,523,702 carloads, containers and trailers, up 2.4%.
Mexican railroads reported 20,443 carloads for the week, down 4.7% compared with the same week last year, and 17,447 intermodal units, up 0.2%. Cumulative volume on Mexican railroads for the first 17 weeks of 2019 was 610,898 carloads and intermodal containers and trailers, down 5.8% from the same point last year.