U.S. rail freight traffic appears to be heading off-track, based on figures released by the Association of American Railroads (AAR) for the week ended June 1. The month of May 2019, too, was bleak—as was year-to-date, compared to the prior-year five-month period.
“The current weakness in the rail traffic numbers is due to a combination of factors,” said AAR Senior Vice President of Policy and Economics John T. Gray. “These include flooding in the Midwest that’s been hindering the operations of railroads and many of their customers. More important is heightened economic uncertainty that’s being made worse by increased trade-related tensions; higher tariffs leading to reductions or disruptions of international trade, and lower industrial output. In addition, some rail markets are undergoing rapid change. For example, locally sourced frac sand in Texas is displacing sand that used to be shipped in by rail. Just by themselves, these reduced sand movements are having a material negative impact on total rail carloads.”
Month of May
U.S. railroads originated 1,291,671 carloads in May 2019, down 2.1%, or 28,065 carloads, from May 2018. U.S. railroads also originated 1,315,684 containers and trailers in May 2019, down 5.9%, or 82,521 units, from the same month last year. Combined U.S. carload and intermodal originations in May 2019 were 2,607,355, down 4.1%, or 110,586 carloads and intermodal units from May 2018.
In May 2019, six of the 20 carload commodity categories tracked by the AAR each month saw carload gains compared with May 2018. Among these were petroleum and petroleum products, up 13,513 carloads or 25.9%; chemicals, up 2,630 carloads or 1.6%; and nonmetallic minerals, up 2,534 carloads or 12.4%. Among the commodities that saw declines in May 2019 from May 2018 were crushed stone, sand and gravel, down 20,358 carloads or 14.6%; grain, down 6,830 carloads or 5.7%; and primary metal products, down 3,117 carloads or 6.4%.
Excluding coal, carloads were down 26,417 carloads, or 2.9%, in May 2019 from May 2018. Excluding coal and grain, carloads were down 19,587 carloads, or 2.4%.
Year to date
Total U.S. carload traffic for the first five months of 2019 was 5,528,824 carloads, down 2.4%, or 137,995 carloads, from the same period last year; and 5,848,287 intermodal units, down 2.4%, or 145,245 containers and trailers, from last year. Total combined U.S. traffic for the first 22 weeks of 2019 was 11,377,111 carloads and intermodal units, a decrease of 2.4% compared to last year.
Week ended June 1, 2019
Total U.S. weekly rail traffic was 478,679 carloads and intermodal units, down 6.1% compared with the same week last year. Total carloads for the week ending June 1 were 237,512 carloads, down 5.8% compared with the same week in 2018, while U.S. weekly intermodal volume was 241,167 containers and trailers, down 6.4% compared to 2018.
Two of the 10 carload commodity groups posted an increase compared with the same week in 2018. Among them were petroleum and petroleum products, up 2,168 carloads, to 12,989; and chemicals, up 395 carloads, to 31,508. Some of the commodity groups that posted decreases compared with the same week in 2018 were coal, down 5,533 carloads, to 70,737; metallic ores and metals, down 3,505 carloads, to 21,100; and nonmetallic minerals, down 3,326 carloads, to 33,073.
North American rail volume for the week ending June 1, 2019, on 12 reporting U.S., Canadian and Mexican railroads totaled 341,947 carloads, down 3.2% compared with the same week last year, and 325,310 intermodal units, down 4.5% compared with last year. Total combined weekly rail traffic in North America was 667,257 carloads and intermodal units, down 3.8%. North American rail volume for the first 22 weeks of 2019 was 15,478,473 carloads and intermodal units, down 1.6% compared with 2018.
Canadian railroads reported 83,265 carloads for the week, up 4%, and 66,713 intermodal units, up 1.5% compared with the same week in 2018. For the first 22 weeks of 2019, Canadian railroads reported cumulative rail traffic volume of 3,297,503 carloads, containers and trailers, up 2.2%.
Mexican railroads reported 21,170 carloads for the week, down 0.3% compared with the same week last year, and 17,430 intermodal units, up 1.4%. Cumulative volume on Mexican railroads for the first 22 weeks of 2019 was 803,859 carloads and intermodal containers and trailers, down 4.4% from the same point last year.