U.S. Rail Volumes: ‘Mixed’ Bag Continues in April

Written by Marybeth Luczak, Executive Editor
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“U.S. rail traffic in April had something for everyone,” Association of American Railroads (AAR) Senior Vice President John T. Gray reported on May 4. “Optimists can point to autos, chemicals and scrap, all of which had solid gains [over the same period last year]. Pessimists can point to grain, intermodal and petroleum products, which saw significant declines.”

“In the middle,” Gray continued, “are carloads of industrial products—an aggregation of seven key carload categories—which fell slightly in April, consistent with the most recent GDP numbers.”

Gray’s account of March 2022 volumes was similar. “March was another mixed month for U.S. rail volumes,” he 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.

What was happening in April 2021? A number of U.S. rail traffic categories “completely recovered ground lost during the pandemic” or were “very close to doing so,” Gray reported on May 5, 2021. Not only did intermodal set a new “all-time record” in April 2021, but also carloads of grain, food, lumber, paper, scrap metal and several other commodity categories were “higher” than both April 2019’s pre-pandemic levels as well as April 2020’s pandemic levels, according to Gray. Carloads of chemicals and steel in April 2021 were “just shy” of April 2019’s levels and “much higher” than 2020, he added.

In April 2022, eight of the 20 carload commodity categories tracked by the AAR each month saw carload gains compared with April 2021. These included: motor vehicles and parts, up 5,649 carloads or 12%; chemicals, up 4,463 carloads or 3.4%; and food products, up 1,632 carloads or 6.7%. Commodities that saw declines in April 2022 included: grain, down 15,817 carloads or 15.2%; metallic ores, down 9,070 carloads or 32.5%; and petroleum and petroleum products, down 7,670 carloads or 17.3%.

Combined U.S. carload and intermodal originations in April 2022 were 2,002,854, dropping 5.8%, or 122,798 carloads and intermodal units from April 2021. This was based on 919,703 carloads—down 3.4%, or 31,929 carloads, from the same month last year—and 1,083,151 containers and trailers—down 7.7%, or 90,869 units.

Excluding coal, carloads fell by 29,329 carloads, or 4.2%, in April 2022 from April 2021. Excluding coal and grain, carloads were down by 13,512 carloads, or 2.3%.

Total U.S. carload traffic for the first four months of 2022 came in at 3,906,843 carloads, rising 1.1%, or 44,191 carloads, from the previous-year period; and 4,453,049 intermodal units, falling 7.1%, or 340,541 containers and trailers.

Total combined U.S. traffic for the first 17 weeks of 2022 was 8,359,892 carloads and intermodal units, a 3.4% decline from 2021.

Week 17 (Ending April 30, 2022)

Total U.S. weekly rail traffic was 506,699 carloads and intermodal units, a decrease of 6.3% from the same week in 2021. This is the tenth consecutive week that traffic has declined.

Total carloads for the week ending April 30, 2022, were 232,972 carloads, down 3.4% compared with the same week last year, while U.S. weekly intermodal volume was 273,727 containers and trailers, down 8.7% vs. last year.

Three of the 10 carload commodity groups posted an increase compared with the prior-year period. They were motor vehicles and parts, up 2,486 carloads, to 13,826; chemicals, up 2,478 carloads, to 34,529; and forest products, up 8 carloads, to 10,175. Commodity groups that posted decreases included grain, down 6,730 carloads, to 21,380; petroleum and petroleum products, down 2,148 carloads, to 8,824; and metallic ores and metals, down 2,044 carloads, to 22,373.

North American rail volume for the week ending April 30, 2022, on 12 reporting U.S., Canadian and Mexican railroads totaled 332,643 carloads, a 3.1% fall-off from the same week last year, and 367,898 intermodal units, a 4.8% drop-off vs. last year. Total combined weekly rail traffic in North America was 700,541 carloads and intermodal units, down 4%. North American rail volume for the first 17 weeks of 2022 was 11,373,663 carloads and intermodal units, down 4% from 2021.

Canadian railroads reported 77,162 carloads for the week, dipping 3%, and 77,779 intermodal units, gaining 10.9% compared with the same week in 2021. For the first 17 weeks of 2022, they reported cumulative rail traffic volume of 2,387,492 carloads, containers and trailers, a 7.3% decline.

Mexican railroads reported 22,509 carloads for the week, up 0.4% from the same point in 2021, and 16,392 intermodal units, down 0.7%. Their cumulative volume for the first 17 weeks of 2022 was 626,279 carloads and intermodal containers and trailers, up 0.9% from 2021.

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