AAR: Rails Feeling Supply Chain Challenges ‘Most Keenly’ in Terminals

Written by Marybeth Luczak, Executive Editor

“The shortages of dray trucks, drivers and warehouse space [at terminals] are significant constraints that drove intermodal volumes down in October,” AAR Senior Vice President John T. Gray noted in the association’s Nov. 3 rail traffic report, which found that container and trailer volume fell 7.9% from October 2020.

Gray pointed out “rail customers have been unable to clear their freight as quickly as they and the railroads would like” at intermodal terminals, where railroads are feeling the supply chain challenges “most keenly.”

Railroads and their supply chain partners, as well as federal, state and local government, continue working to address challenges. For instance, last month, the state of California and the U.S. Department of Transportation teamed to modernize supply chain infrastructure and speed goods movement; the Port of Long Beach, Utah Inland Port Authority and Union Pacific announced they were adding capacity to an existing regularly scheduled direct rail intermodal service connecting Long Beach to Salt Lake City; UP and BNSF reported offering their ocean carrier customers incentives to expedite the flow of freight out of the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles; and the two California ports said they would start charging ocean carriers a daily fee for containers that linger on terminals.

(For more intermodal performance results, see “IANA: ‘Volume Loss is Relative.’” and “Mediocre Performance—While Expecting Superior Results?”)

According to the Association of American Railroads’ (AAR) report, U.S. Class I railroads moved 1,077,515 containers and trailers in October 2021, dropping 7.9% (or 92,400 units) from the same month last year; and 947,013 carloads in October 2021, rising 3.8% (or 34,510 carloads). Total U.S. carload and intermodal originations for the month were 2,024,528, down 2.8% (or 57,890 carloads and intermodal units) from October 2020.

(For September 2021 results, which were similar, see “AAR: No Single Solution to the Intermodal Problem”; for August, see “AAR: Railroads Working to Keep Network ‘Fluid’”; and for July 2021, see “AAR: Rail Volumes ‘Decelerate’ in July”)

In October 2021, 15 of the 20 carload commodity categories tracked by the AAR each month saw carload gains compared with October 2020. These included: coal, up 19,783 carloads or 8.3%; chemicals, up 8,184 carloads or 6.7%; and crushed stone, sand and gravel, up 5,331 carloads or 7.1%. Commodities that saw declines in October 2021 from October 2020 included: motor vehicles and parts, down 9,487 carloads or 15.3%; grain, down 6,375 carloads or 6.0%; and petroleum and petroleum products, down 2,495 carloads or 6.1%.

Excluding coal, carloads were up 14,727 carloads, or 2.2%, in October 2021 vs. October 2020. Excluding coal and grain, carloads increased 21,102 carloads, or 3.7%.

For the first 10 months of 2021, total U.S. carload traffic came in at 9,956,652, a 7.5% gain, or 692,732 carloads, from the same point last year; and 11,889,623 intermodal units, a 8.0% bump-up, or 883,962 containers and trailers, vs. 2020.

Total combined U.S. traffic for the first 43 weeks of the year was 21,846,275 carloads and intermodal units, up 7.8% from the same period in 2020.

Week 43 (Ending Oct. 30, 2021)

Total U.S. weekly rail traffic for the week ending Oct. 30, 2021, was 510,141 carloads and intermodal units, dropping 2.0% compared with the same point in 2020, according to the AAR report.

Total carloads for the week came in at 238,267, up 4.9% compared with the same week in 2020, while U.S. weekly intermodal volume was 271,874 containers and trailers, down 7.3% from 2020.

Intermodal volume has been down for 13 consecutive weeks. (For more details, see “AAR: U.S. Rail Traffic Dips in Week 42.”)

Six of the 10 carload commodity groups posted an increase from the same week in 2020. They included coal, up 8,365 carloads, to 66,818; metallic ores and metals, up 3,405 carloads, to 24,059; and chemicals, up 2,800 carloads, to 33,343. Commodity groups that posted declines from the same week in 2020 included grain, down 2,340 carloads, to 24,711; motor vehicles and parts, down 2,123 carloads, to 12,697; and miscellaneous carloads, down 872 carloads, to 9,422.

North American rail volume for the week ending Oct. 30, 2021, on 12 reporting U.S., Canadian and Mexican railroads totaled 337,727 carloads, gaining 3.7% from the same week last year, and 357,365 intermodal units, losing 8.7% compared with 2020. Total combined weekly rail traffic in North America was 695,092 carloads and intermodal units, down 3.0%. North American rail volume for the first 43 weeks of 2021 was 29,775,813 carloads and intermodal units, up 6.7% vs. 2020.

Canadian railroads reported 79,459 carloads for the week, a 3.3% rise, and 69,710 intermodal units, a 14.1% drop-off compared with the same week in 2020. For the first 43 weeks of 2021, they reported cumulative rail traffic volume of 6,377,405 carloads, containers and trailers, up 3.9%.

Mexican railroads reported 20,001 carloads for the week, decreasing 6.6% compared with the same week in 2020, and 15,781 intermodal units, declining 5.9%. Their cumulative volume for the first 43 weeks of 2021 was 1,552,133 carloads and intermodal containers and trailers, up 3.3% from the previous-year period.

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