March Rail Volumes: A ‘Mixed’ Bag in U.S.

Written by Marybeth Luczak, Executive Editor
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“March was another mixed month for U.S. rail volumes,” Association of American Railroads’ Senior Vice President John T. Gray noted in an April 6 AAR report; it was the “best month ever” for carloads of chemicals, but down were carloads of grain, and petroleum and paper products, among others.

Gray added that March 2022 carloads of crushed stone and sand, food products, lumber, and motor vehicles “were higher than they’ve been in months.”

What these “conflicting trends” reflect, he noted, is “an economy with a good deal of directional uncertainty; uncertainty that needs resolution before its full potential can be realized.”

This is quite different from March 2021, when Gray reported a rail traffic “rebound,” taking into account 2020’s pandemic-related drop. And recent signs of strength in manufacturing were “good signs for railroads,” he said at that time.

In March 2022, nine of the 20 carload commodity categories tracked by the AAR each month saw carload gains compared with March 2021. These included chemicals, up 18,291 carloads or 11.7%; coal, up 16,637 carloads or 5.4%; and crushed stone, sand and gravel, up 7,974 carloads or 8.5%. Commodities that saw decreases in March 2022 from March 2021 included grain, down 13,839 carloads or 10.8%; petroleum and petroleum products, down 9,033 carloads or 16.5%; and all other carloads, down 4,459 carloads or 14.6%.

Combined U.S. carload and intermodal originations in March 2022 were 2,507,684, dipping 3%, or 78,714 carloads and intermodal units, from March 2021. This was based on 1,169,546 carloads—up 1.2%, or 13,456 carloads, from the same month last year—and 1,338,138 containers and trailers—down 6.4%, or 92,170 units.

Excluding coal, carloads fell by 3,181, or 0.4%, in March 2022 from March 2021. Excluding coal and grain, carloads were up by 10,658, or 1.5%.

Total U.S. carload traffic for the first three months of 2022 came in at 2,987,140 carloads, rising 2.6%, or 76,120 carloads, from the previous-year period; and 3,369,898 intermodal units, dropping 6.9%, or 249,672 containers and trailers.

Total combined U.S. traffic for the first 13 weeks of 2022 was 6,357,038 carloads and intermodal units, a 2.7% decline from 2021.

Week 13 (Ending April 2, 2022)

Total U.S. weekly rail traffic was 502,194 carloads and intermodal units, a decrease of 2.7% from the same week in 2021.

Total carloads for the week ending April 2, 2022, were 231,963 carloads, a 0.6% increase compared with the same week last year, while U.S. weekly intermodal volume was 270,231 containers and trailers, a 5.4% drop vs. last year.

Six of the 10 carload commodity groups posted an increase compared with the same week in 2021. They included coal, up 4,155 carloads, to 63,932; chemicals, up 2,204 carloads, to 35,109; and farm products excluding grain, and food, up 1,889 carloads, to 17,347. Commodity groups that posted declines included grain, down 3,528 carloads, to 22,166; metallic ores and metals, down 1,989 carloads, to 21,082; and miscellaneous carloads, down 1,916 carloads, to 8,127.

North American rail volume for the week ending April 2, 2022, on 12 reporting U.S., Canadian and Mexican railroads totaled 333,927 carloads, a 2.8% gain over the same week last year, and 359,728 intermodal units, a 3.5% fall-off from last year. Total combined weekly rail traffic in North America was 693,655 carloads and intermodal units, down 0.5%. North American rail volume for the first 13 weeks of 2022 was 8,626,296 carloads and intermodal units, down 3.7% from 2021.

Canadian railroads reported 80,499 carloads for the week, up 3.4%, and 73,035 intermodal units, down 1.7% compared with the same week in 2021. For the first 13 weeks of 2022, they reported cumulative rail traffic volume of 1,782,022 carloads, containers and trailers, decreasing 9.4%.

Mexican railroads reported 21,465 carloads for the week, rising 32% from the previous-year period, and 16,462 intermodal units, increasing 28.6%. Their cumulative volume for the first 13 weeks of 2022 was 487,236 carloads and intermodal containers and trailers, up 5.4% from the same point in 2021.

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