Near-record intermodal rail volume as trucking rates edge toward historic highs

Written by Stuart Chirls, Senior Editor
intermodal

Photo: USA Truck

Railroads continue to benefit from a multiplicity of issues throttling the trucking industry, as tight capacity and higher rates push more traffic to the rails.

The Association of American Railroads reported U.S. rail traffic for the week ending May 19 rolled to 546,415 carloads and intermodal units, up 3.6% compared with the same week a year ago.

Traffic totaled 261,273 carloads, up 1.2%, and intermodal volume was 285,142 containers and trailers, up 5.9%, the third-highest weekly total ever.

The Cass Truckload Linehaul Index in April showed pricing up 8.2% year-on-year – the largest gain since the base year of 2005, and the strongest normalized percentage level since deregulation.

Long-haul trucking capacity has been in a vise thanks to a shortage of drivers, higher diesel fuel prices and a surging economy boosting retail sales.

Cass said domestic intermodal rates including fuel surcharges increased 6.6% in April, the strongest gain in six years. Intermodal spot market rates are soaring, up 53.3% on-year for the week ending May 15.

Six of the 10 carload commodity groups tracked by AAR posted an increase compared with the same week in 2017. Nonmetallic minerals, including frac sand, gained 6.6%; chemicals were higher by 4.7%. Petroleum and petroleum products shipments increased 10.2%, though total carloads was a fraction of the largest commodities.

The biggest-volume segments in decline were led by grain, 6.9%, while coal slipped by 0.5%. Motor vehicles and parts were off by 4.4%.

For the first 20 weeks of 2018, U.S. railroads reported cumulative volume of 5,141,257 carloads, up 1.1%, and 5,443,730 intermodal units, up 5.9% from a year ago. Total combined U.S. traffic for the first 20 weeks was 10,584,987 carloads and intermodal units, an increase of 3.6%.

North American rail volume for the week on 12 reporting U.S., Canadian and Mexican railroads totaled 366,260 carloads, up 2.3%, and 372,668 intermodal units, up 4.6% on-year. Total combined weekly rail traffic in North America was 738,928 carloads and intermodal units, up 3.4%. North American rail volume for the first 20 weeks of 2018 was 14,274,661 carloads and intermodal units, up 3.2%.

Canadian railroads reported 83,575 carloads for the week, up 8.3%, and 70,974 intermodal units, ahead 4.4%. For the first 20 weeks, Canadian cumulative volume of 2,932,441 carloads, containers and trailers was better by 3.2%.

Mexican railroads reported 21,412 carloads for the week and 16,552 intermodal units. Cumulative volume on Mexican railroads for the first 20 weeks was 757,233 carloads and intermodal containers and trailers. Comparative data was not available.

 

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