Week 31: Is Intermodal Losing Steam?

Written by Marybeth Luczak, Executive Editor
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Total U.S. weekly rail traffic for the week ending Aug. 7, 2021 was 509,607 carloads and intermodal units, up 2.4% from the same point last year, as intermodal losses offset carload gains, the Association of American Railroads (AAR) reported on Aug. 11.

U.S. Class I railroads hauled 234,336 carloads, a 6.3% increase compared with the same week in 2020, and 275,271 containers and trailers, a 0.6% decrease vs. 2020. (For week-ending July 31, 2021 results, see “AAR: Rail Volumes ‘Decelerate’ in July.”)

However, rail volumes for the 31st week of 2021 were down 5% from the same week in 2019, according to Susquehanna Financial Group (SFG) Analyst Bascome Majors. He also found that the four-week trend was up 4% vs. 2020 and down 5% from 2019. According to Majors’ analysis, intermodal for the week was up 1% from 2019, and the four-week trend for intermodal was up 1% vs. 2019. (For more on intermodal, see SFG chart below).

TRAILING 4-WEEK AVERAGE U.S. CLASS I RAILROAD INTERMODAL VOLUMES SINCE THE END OF 1Q (Chart courtesy of Susquehanna Financial Group. Sources: AAR, company reports, SFG Research)

In its Aug. 11 report, AAR reiterated that the percentage changes for some rail traffic categories in the current week (ending Aug. 7) vs. the same week in 2020 are “inflated because of the widespread shutdowns—and subsequent large reduction in rail volumes—that impacted many economic sectors last year at this time.”

The association reported that six of the 10 carload commodity groups posted an increase compared with the same week in 2020. They included metallic ores and metals, up 7,424 carloads, to 23,193; coal, up 7,301 carloads, to 66,838; and nonmetallic minerals, up 3,131 carloads, to 33,759. Commodity groups posting decreases vs. the prior-year period included grain, down 3,730 carloads, to 18,190; motor vehicles and parts, down 2,937 carloads, to 13,230; and petroleum and petroleum products, down 1,106 carloads, to 10,188.

For the first 31 weeks of 2021, U.S. railroads reported cumulative volume of 7,141,531 carloads, rising 9% from the same point in 2020; and 8,673,507 intermodal units, growing 14.6% over last year. Total combined U.S. traffic for the first 31 weeks of 2021 was 15,815,038 carloads and intermodal units, a gain of 12% vs. last year.

North American rail volume for the week ending Aug. 7, 2021, on 12 reporting U.S., Canadian and Mexican railroads totaled 325,978 carloads, rising 4.1% from the comparable week in 2020, and 358,442 intermodal units, falling 1.5% vs. last year. Total combined weekly rail traffic in North America reached 684,420 carloads and intermodal units, increasing 1.1%. North American rail volume for the first 31 weeks of 2021 was 21,562,185 carloads and intermodal units, a 10.7% boost compared with 2020.

Canadian railroads reported 72,235 carloads for the week, up 2.1%, and 68,578 intermodal units, down 1% compared with the same point in 2020. For the first 31 weeks of 2021, they reported cumulative rail traffic volume of 4,604,192 carloads, containers and trailers, up 7.1%.

Mexican railroads reported 19,407 carloads for the week, falling 11.6% from the prior-year period, and 14,593 intermodal units, decreasing 16.6%. Their cumulative volume for the first 31 weeks of 2021 was 1,142,955 carloads and intermodal containers and trailers, a 7.2% gain vs. 2020.

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