AAR Week 7: Intermodal, Carloads Post Double-Digit Losses

Written by Marybeth Luczak, Executive Editor
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For the week ending Feb. 20, total U.S. rail traffic of 377,904 carloads and containers fell 21.7% vs. the same week last year, reported the Association of American Railroads on Feb. 24.

Carloads as well as intermodal containers and trailers posted double-digit losses compared with 2020, coming in at 171,642 (down 26.3%) and 206,262 (down 17.4%), respectively.

Rail volumes decreased “as extreme winter weather gripped much of North America,” Susquehanna Financial Group Analyst Bascome Majors noted in a Feb. 24 railroad report.

It’s the first time weekly intermodal volume has dipped since the week ending Sept. 12, 2020. And it’s the first time this volume has not offset carload declines since the week ending Oct. 3, 2020.

In contrast, for the week ending Feb. 13, 2021, traffic came in at 480,483 carloads and intermodal units, a 0.3% increase vs. the same week last year. The week’s intermodal volume of 269,063 containers and trailers was up 6.9%, lifting total traffic, as carloads of 211,420 were down 7%.

AAR: Rail Traffic, Week Ending Feb. 20

None of the ten U.S. carload commodity groups posted an increase compared with the same week in 2020. They included coal, down 14,856 carloads, to 48,745; nonmetallic minerals, down 13,765 carloads, to 16,088; and chemicals, down 9,400 carloads, to 23,864.

For the first seven weeks of 2021, U.S. railroads reported cumulative volume of 1,539,758 carloads, a decrease of 6.3% from the same point last year; and 1,917,967 intermodal units, a rise of 6.5% from last year. Total combined U.S. traffic for the first seven weeks of 2021 was 3,457,725 carloads and intermodal units, up 0.4% vs. last year.

North American rail volume for the week ending Feb. 20, 2021, on 12 reporting U.S., Canadian and Mexican railroads totaled 257,127 carloads, down 22.2% compared with the same week in 2020, and 286,467 intermodal units, down 11.9% compared with last year. Total combined weekly rail traffic in North America was 543,594 carloads and intermodal units, down 17.1%. North American rail volume for the first seven weeks of 2021 was 4,725,082 carloads and intermodal units, up 0.4% vs. 2020.

Canadian railroads reported 67,877 carloads for the week, a decline of 11.1%, and 63,968 intermodal units, an increase of 13.8% compared with the same week last year. For the first seven weeks of 2021 they reported cumulative rail traffic volume of 1,034,601 carloads, containers and trailers, a 4.6% rise.

Mexican railroads reported 17,608 carloads for the week, falling 16.5% vs. the same week in 2020, and 16,237 intermodal units, decreasing 14.8%. Cumulative volume for the first seven weeks of 2021 was 232,756 carloads and intermodal containers and trailers, down 14.3% from the same point last year.

The SFG Perspective

For another perspective on the intermodal market, following are charts from Susquehanna Financial Group’s Majors, who notes: “The U.S. deep freeze of mid-February made the most significant dent in near-term intermodal volumes, but real-time daily demand measures are already recovering across modes, and near-term leading indicators remain at extremely positive levels (ocean volumes and spot rates, gap between retailer sales & inventory trends) … Domestic intermodal volumes are tracking down Y/Y (-24%) with international intermodal volumes down 12% Y/Y as weather and container availability impacted intermodal supply chains more severely than more flexible truckload.”

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