Rail Freight Nosedive: “Sensible Actions Aimed at Accelerating Growth” Needed, Says AAR

Written by William C. Vantuono, Editor-in-Chief
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AAR Senior Vice President Policy and Economics John T. Gray

In the Association of American Railroads Nov. 6, 2019 traffic report, Senior Vice President Policy and Economics John T. Gray succinctly notes what is dragging rail freight down: “Sluggish growth abroad and trade developments are weighing on business investment, exports, and manufacturing. Unfortunately, those are precisely what drive much of the freight carried by U.S. railroads, and their weakness goes a long way in explaining why rail traffic is down right now. Railroads are hopeful that policymakers here and abroad will take sensible actions aimed at accelerating growth and removing the uncertainty that’s constraining many economic sectors.”

What Gray carefully refers to as “trade developments” are actually tariffs imposed by the Trump Administration on countries like Mexico, China and Canada, many industry observers note. Indeed, the AAR itself strongly points that “42% of rail carloads and intermodal units and 35% of annual rail revenue are directly associated with international trade. About 50,000 rail jobs, worth over $5.5 billion in annual wages and benefits, depend directly on international trade.”

“Those tariffs, it logically follows, invite retaliation,” notes one industry observer. “And that hurts railroads.”

Download the AAR’s Freight Railroads and International Trade Report:

For the week ending November 2, 2019, as well as October 2019, volumes continued their downward spiral.

Traffic For the Month of October 2019

U.S. railroads originated 1,224,477 carloads in October 2019, down 8.4%, or 112,703 carloads, from October 2018. U.S. railroads also originated 1,331,944 containers and trailers in October 2019, down 7.8%, or 111,910 units, from the same month last year. Combined U.S. carload and intermodal originations in October 2019 were 2,556,421, down 8.1%, or 224,613 carloads and intermodal units from October 2018.

In October 2019, four of the 20 carload commodity categories tracked by the AAR each month saw carload gains compared with October 2018. These included: stone, clay & glass products, up 2,028 carloads or 5.2%; petroleum & petroleum products, up 1,543 carloads or 2.5%; and chemicals, up 603 carloads or 0.4%. Commodities that saw declines in October 2019 from October 2018 included: coal, down 65,554 carloads or 15%; motor vehicles & parts, down 8,833 carloads or 10.3%; and crushed stone, sand & gravel, down 8,121 carloads or 6.8%.

Excluding coal, carloads were down 47,149 carloads, or 5.2%, in October 2019 from October 2018. Excluding coal and grain, carloads were down 40,496 carloads, or 5.1%.

Total U.S. carload traffic for the first 10 months of 2019 was 11,088,723 carloads, down 4.3%, or 497,121 carloads, from the same period last year; and 11,721,870 intermodal units, down 4.5%, or 553,863 containers and trailers, from last year.

Total combined U.S. traffic for the first 44 weeks of 2019 was 22,810,593 carloads and intermodal units, a decrease of 4.4% compared to last year.

Week Ending November 2, 2019

Total U.S. weekly rail traffic was 510,012 carloads and intermodal units, down 8.8% compared with the same week last year. Total carloads for the week ending November 2 were 245,319 carloads, down 8.9% compared with the same week in 2018, while U.S. weekly intermodal volume was 264,693 containers and trailers, down 8.6% compared to 2018.

Two of the 10 carload commodity groups posted an increase compared with the same week in 2018. They were grain, up 1,406 carloads, to 21,798; and petroleum and petroleum products, up 10 carloads, to 12,677. Commodity groups that posted decreases compared with the same week in 2018 included coal, down 15,406 carloads, to 72,645; metallic ores and metals, down 3,485 carloads, to 20,347; and nonmetallic minerals, down 3,107 carloads, to 33,301.

North American rail volume for the week ending November 2, 2019, on 12 reporting U.S., Canadian and Mexican railroads totaled 346,309 carloads, down 8.0% compared with the same week last year, and 351,681 intermodal units, down 7.9% compared with last year. Total combined weekly rail traffic in North America was 697,990 carloads and intermodal units, down 8.0%. North American rail volume for the first 44 weeks of 2019 was 31,147,630 carloads and intermodal units, down 3.3% compared with 2018.

Canadian railroads reported 81,624 carloads for the week, down 7.6%, and 67,583 intermodal units, down 7.1% compared with the same week in 2018. For the first 44 weeks of 2019, Canadian railroads reported cumulative rail traffic volume of 6,673,129 carloads, containers and trailers, up 0.5%.

Mexican railroads reported 19,366 carloads for the week, up 3.6% compared with the same week last year, and 19,405 intermodal units, down 1.1%. Cumulative volume on Mexican railroads for the first 44 weeks of 2019 was 1,663,908 carloads and intermodal containers and trailers, down 2.7% from the same point last year.

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