AAR: ‘Railroads Looking to the Future’

Written by Marybeth Luczak, Executive Editor
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U.S. rail traffic by the end of the 2020 reporting year was “close to pre-pandemic levels, sparked by sharply higher grain and intermodal shipments along with the reopening of auto assembly plants,” Association of American Railroads (AAR) Senior Vice President John T. Gray said on Jan. 6.

In December, U.S. rail traffic—2,435,819 carloads and intermodal units—rose 4.4% from December 2019, with intermodal growth again offsetting carload declines. U.S. railroads originated 1,101,324 carloads, a falloff of 3.7%, or 42,666 carloads, compared with the same month in 2019; and 1,334,495 containers and trailers, a boost of 12.2%, or 145,126 units, from 2019.

Excluding coal, carloads were up 7,843 carloads, or 1%, in December 2020 from December 2019. Excluding coal and grain, carloads were down 20,252 carloads, or 2.9%.

In December, 10 of the 20 carload commodity categories tracked by AAR each month saw carload gains compared with December 2019. They included grain, up 28,095 carloads or 27.9%; chemicals, up 5,764 carloads or 3.7%; and iron and steel scrap, up 1,913 carloads or 12.9%. Commodities that saw declines in December 2020 from December 2019 were coal, down 50,509 carloads or 14.5%; crushed stone, sand and gravel, down 12,333 carloads or 14.8%; and petroleum and petroleum products, down 10,386 carloads or 15.8%.

2020: A Look Back

Total U.S. carload traffic for the 2020 reporting year was 11,482,059 carloads, decreasing 12.9% or 1,705,963 carloads, compared with the prior reporting year figures; and 13,675,417 intermodal units, falling 1.8%, or 255,634 containers and trailers, compared with the prior reporting year figures.

Total combined U.S. traffic for the 53 reporting weeks of 2020 was 25,157,476 carloads and intermodal units, down 7.2% compared with the prior reporting week figures. (Note: The week ending Jan. 2, 2021, is the 53rd week in 2020, since five of its days will have fallen in 2020, according to AAR. Also, “Yearoveryear comparisons are always made to the week that was 52 weeks (364 days) earlier.” Download the complete explanation below.)

“Before the pandemic even hit, railroads began 2020 on less than ideal footing because of weakness in the manufacturing sector and lower port activity caused by trade disputes,” Gray said. For several months in early 2020, “railroads suffered near-record traffic declines, but they worked hard to keep the goods we all need moving.”

April was among the most challenging months. In AAR’s report at that time, Gray said: “The 25.2% year-over-year decline in total rail carloads was the worst decline for total carloads for any month since our records begin in 1989, and the 17.2% decline in intermodal loadings in April was the worst since the summer of 2009. Coal and autos were by far the worst-hit commodities in April, but declines spanned the industrial spectrum, hitting finished steel and steel scrap, chemicals, petroleum products, sand and stone, and much else. We don’t know exactly when it will happen, but our economy—and rail traffic—will rebound.”

The recovery process began slowly in May, and accelerated in June. Gray noted then: “By the end of June, freight loadings had improved by about 60,000 carload and intermodal units weekly over where they had been in late April.”

By the end of July, intermodal was closer than any other rail traffic category to pre-pandemic levels. U.S. railroads originated 1,295,960 containers and trailers for that month, down 1.4%, or 18,403 units, from July 2019. And they originated 1,042,017 carloads in July 2020, down 17.6%, or 222,337 carloads, from the same month in 2019. Combined U.S. carload and intermodal originations in July 2020 were 2,337,977, down 9.3%, or 240,740 carloads and intermodal units from July 2019.

By the week ended Aug. 8, 2020, U.S. weekly intermodal volume of 277,054 containers and trailers was up 1.9% compared with 2019.

In reporting U.S. rail traffic for the week ending Aug. 29, 2020, as well as volumes for August 2020, Gray emphasized the importance that railroads have in moving consumer goods, as indicated by the ongoing recovery in intermodal loadings. “Despite the pandemic and the associated economic dislocations, an enormous amount of freight continues to move on railroads and other transportation modes,” he said. “For U.S. railroads, August 2020 was the best month in terms of intermodal loadings since October 2018 and the fifth best intermodal month ever. Much of what’s inside the trailers and containers on an intermodal train ends up on the shelves of stores, or finds its way to consumers’ doors via e-commerce merchants. Railroads help ensure that consumers get what they want, when they want it.”

U.S. railroads originated 898,227 carloads in August 2020, down 14.9%, or 156,797 carloads, from August 2019. They also originated 1,122,954 containers and trailers in August 2020, up 3%, or 33,115 units, from the same month in 2019. Combined U.S. carload and intermodal originations in August 2020 were 2,021,181, down 5.8%, or 123,682 carloads and intermodal units from August 2019.

October was the “the best month ever” for U.S. rail intermodal, with volumes up by one-third from April—“a stunning increase in six months,” Gray said on Nov. 4, 2020.

U.S. railroads originated 1,169,874 containers and trailers in October 2020, up 10.0%, or 105,966 units, from the same month in 2019. They also originated 912,772 carloads in October 2020, down 6.6%, or 64,634 carloads, from October 2019.

Additionally in October, carloads of grain “were their highest in 13 years, while carloads of motor vehicles and parts have recovered after falling close to 90% earlier this year,” Gray said. “Changes in energy markets continue to pressure carloads of coal, petroleum products, and frac sand and holding back total carloads. Excluding those three categories, carloads in October were a few percentage points higher than last year.”

While on Jan. 6, 2021, Gray said it is “no surprise” that rail volumes were down in 2020, “railroads are looking to the future. Their experience in 2020 along with huge ongoing network investments have made the industry more adaptable and better able to adjust to the demands of a wide range of operational and market conditions. Railroads are well prepared to help our economy grow in 2021.”

Week Ending Jan. 2, 2021 Report

Total U.S. weekly rail traffic was 421,991 carloads and intermodal units, rising 1.9% compared with the prior reporting year figures. (Again, note that the week ending Jan. 2, 2021, is the 53rd week for 2020, since five of its days will have fallen in 2020, according to AAR.)

Total carloads for the week were 202,278, decreasing 6.1% compared with the prior reporting year figures, while U.S. weekly intermodal volume was 219,713 containers and trailers, increasing 10.7% compared with the prior reporting year figures.

Five of the 10 carload commodity groups posted an increase compared with the prior reporting year figures. They included grain, up 5,209 carloads, to 24,790; motor vehicles and parts, up 1,604 carloads, to 8,619; and chemicals, up 557 carloads, to 31,560. Commodity groups posting decreases compared with the prior reporting year figures included coal, down 14,805 carloads, to 55,018; nonmetallic minerals, down 3,043 carloads, to 19,773; and petroleum and petroleum products, down 2,791 carloads, to 10,266.

North American rail volume for the week ending Jan. 2, 2021, on 12 reporting U.S., Canadian and Mexican railroads totaled 289,037 carloads, down 4.7% compared with the prior reporting year figures, and 287,041 intermodal units, up 8.1% compared with the prior reporting year figures. Total combined weekly rail traffic in North America was 576,078 carloads and intermodal units, up 1.3%. North American rail volume for the first 53 weeks of 2020 was 34,610,470 carloads and intermodal units, down 6.7% compared with the prior reporting year figures.

Canadian railroads reported 74,166 carloads for the week, down 2.7%, and 58,241 intermodal units, up 3.3%, compared with the prior reporting year figures. For the first 53 weeks of 2020, they reported cumulative rail traffic volume of 7,637,891 carloads and containers and trailers, down 4.1%.

Mexican railroads reported 12,593 carloads for the week, up 10.1% compared with the prior reporting year figures, and 9,087 intermodal units, down 16%. Cumulative volume for the first 53 weeks of 2020 was 1,815,103 carloads and intermodal containers and trailers, down 9.8% compared with the prior reporting year figures.

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