Extreme Winter Weather Slows Traffic: AAR

Written by William C. Vantuono, Editor-in-Chief
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Look closely at the lower right corner of this Union Pacific photo taken from a hi-rail vehicle and you’ll see a rail head peeking out from the snow.

The Association of American Railroads, in reporting U.S. rail traffic for the week ending Feb. 27, 2021, as well as volumes for February 2021, noted that volume took a polar vortex hit.

“During February, snow and ice covered wide swaths of the country, including many areas that rarely see harsh winter weather wreaking havoc on all forms of transportation, including rail,” said AAR Senior Vice President John T. Gray. “In fact, total U.S. rail carloads in the third week of February were the lowest for any week in AAR’s records that go back to 1988.  While carloads rebounded during February’s final week to a more typical level, the month ended with noticeably lower total volumes. On the positive side, both intermodal and grain traffic remained relatively strong through three of the four weeks of the month.”

Association of American Railroads photo

Frozen February

U.S. railroads originated 824,636 carloads in February 2021, down 11.1%, or 102,972 carloads, from February 2020. U.S. railroads also originated 1,015,995 containers and trailers in February 2021, up 1.8%, or 18,184 units, from the same month last year. Combined U.S. carload and intermodal originations in February 2021 were 1,840,631, down 4.4%, or 84,788 carloads and intermodal units from February 2020.

In February 2021, three of the 20 carload commodity categories tracked by the AAR each month saw carload gains compared with February 2020. These were grain, up 12,342 carloads or 15.7%; pulp & paper products, up 578 carloads or 2.8%; and metallic ores, up 221 carloads or 1.4%. Commodities that saw declines in February 2021 from February 2020 included: coal, down 31,837 carloads or 12.5%; crushed stone, sand & gravel, down 24,320 carloads or 33%; and motor vehicles & parts, down 14,336 carloads or 20.4%.

BNSF photo

Excluding coal, carloads were down 71,135 carloads, or 10.6%, in February 2021 from February 2020. Excluding coal and grain, carloads were down 83,477 carloads, or 14%.

Total U.S. carload traffic for the first two months of 2021 was 1,754,939 carloads, down 6.5%, or 122,771 carloads, from the same period last year; and 2,189,215 intermodal units, up 7.1%, or 144,732 containers and trailers, from last year.

Total combined U.S. traffic for the first eight weeks of 2021 was 3,944,154 carloads and intermodal units, an increase of 0.6% compared to last year.

Week 8 Thaw

Total U.S. weekly rail traffic was 486,429 carloads and intermodal units, up 1.7% compared with the same week last year.

Total carloads for the week ending February 27 were 215,181 carloads, down 8.5% compared with the same week in 2020, while U.S. weekly intermodal volume was 271,248 containers and trailers, up 11.6% compared to 2020.

One of the 10 carload commodity groups posted an increase compared with the same week in 2020. It was grain, up 2,820 carloads, to 23,530. Commodity groups that posted decreases compared with the same week in 2020 included chemicals, down 6,243 carloads, to 27,768; nonmetallic minerals, down 5,499 carloads, to 23,431; and coal, down 3,491 carloads, to 58,634.

North American rail volume for the week ending February 27, 2021, on 12 reporting U.S., Canadian and Mexican railroads totaled 313,051 carloads, down 7.4% compared with the same week last year, and 359,293 intermodal units, up 12.4% compared with last year. Total combined weekly rail traffic in North America was 672,344 carloads and intermodal units, up 2.2%. North American rail volume for the first eight weeks of 2021 was 5,419,585 carloads and intermodal units, up 1.1% compared with 2020.

Canadian railroads reported 79,210 carloads for the week, down 1.6%, and 71,724 intermodal units, up 23.5% compared with the same week in 2020. For the first eight weeks of 2021, Canadian railroads reported cumulative rail traffic volume of 1,185,535 carloads, containers and trailers, up 5.2%.

Mexican railroads reported 18,660 carloads for the week, down 16.9% compared with the same week last year, and 16,321 intermodal units, down 12.3%. Cumulative volume on Mexican railroads for the first eight weeks of 2021 was 289,896 carloads and intermodal containers and trailers, down 7.3% from the same point last year.

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