Rail Traffic Gains Build in 2Q21

Written by Marybeth Luczak, Executive Editor
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U.S. rail volumes in second-quarter 2021 “reflect an economy that is in much better shape than it was but still has room to grow,” AAR Senior Vice President John T. Gray reported on July 7.

In the second-quarter, total U.S. carloads were the highest since fourth-quarter 2019; carloads excluding coal were the highest since third-quarter 2019; and intermodal and chemical volumes were “both the highest for any quarter in history,” Gray noted in the Association of American Railroads’ (AAR) traffic report for June and the week ending July 3. Additionally, carloads of steel-related commodities were “relatively strong in the second quarter, reflecting higher demand as the industrial economy continues to recover,” he said.

In June 2021, U.S. railroads originated 1,175,232 carloads, rising 19.1%, or 188,164 carloads, from June 2021, while they originated 1,386,745 containers and trailers, increasing 10.9%, or 136,634 units. Combined, last month’s originations came in at 2,561,977, up 14.5%, or 324,798 carloads and intermodal units from June 2020.

Of the 20 carload categories AAR tracks each month, 19 had gains over June 2020. They included: coal, up 84,109 carloads or 33.5%; chemicals, up 22,660 carloads or 16%; and metallic ores, up 20,228 carloads or 164.6%. Only farm products excluding grain posted a decrease: falling 425 carloads or 10.6%.

Excluding coal, carloads were up 104,055 carloads, or 14.1%, in June 2021 vs. the same month last year. Excluding coal and grain, carloads were up 100,564 carloads, or 15.9%.

Total U.S. carload traffic for the first six months of 2021 was 6,002,525 carloads, up 9.4%, or 517,580 carloads, from the same point last year; and 7,332,067 intermodal units, up 17.5%, or 1,093,832 containers and trailers, from 2020.

Total combined U.S. traffic for the first 26 weeks the year was 13,334,592 carloads and intermodal units, a 13.7% boost from 2020.

Week 26 (Ending July 3, 2021)

Total U.S. weekly rail traffic was 512,919 carloads and intermodal units, a 17.1% gain over the prior-year period.

Total carloads for the week ending July 3 came in at 236,846, up 22.8% compared with the same week in 2020, while U.S. weekly intermodal volume was 276,073 containers and trailers, up 12.6% vs. last year.

(In comparison: For the week ending June 26, 2021, total U.S. rail traffic was 516,167 carloads and intermodal units, increasing 12.4% from the prior-year period. That included 237,117 carloads [up 17.7% vs. 2020] and 279,050 containers and trailers [up 8.2% vs. 2020].)

Nine of the 10 carload commodity groups posted an increase for the week ending July 3 compared with the same week in 2020. They included coal, up 17,570 carloads, to 66,380; metallic ores and metals, up 9,419 carloads, to 23,185; and chemicals, up 6,179 carloads, to 34,869. Grain was the only commodity group to post a decrease compared with the same week in 2020: down 794 carloads, to 19,863.

North American rail volume for the week ending July 3, 2021, on 12 reporting U.S., Canadian and Mexican railroads totaled 329,932 carloads, a 18% increase vs. the same week last year, and 355,466 intermodal units, a 11% rise compared with last year. Total combined weekly rail traffic in North America was 685,398 carloads and intermodal units, up 14.3%. North American rail volume for the first 26 weeks of 2021 was 18,194,144 carloads and intermodal units, up 12.2% compared with the prior-year period.

Canadian railroads reported 72,692 carloads for the week, a boost of 5.1%, and 64,113 intermodal units, an increase of 4.9% compared with the same point in 2020. For the first 26 weeks of 2021, they reported cumulative rail traffic volume of 3,921,754 carloads, containers and trailers, a gain of 8.9%.

Mexican railroads reported 20,394 carloads for the week, rising 15.1% from the year-earlier period, and 15,280 intermodal units, increasing 11.1%. Their cumulative volume for the first 26 weeks of 2021 was 937,798 carloads plus intermodal containers and trailers, up 4.7% vs. last year.

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