Rail freight sees first decline in months

Written by Stuart Chirls, Senior Editor
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Association of American Railroads Senior Vice President of Policy and Economics John T. Gray.

After a mostly steady climb through this year, rail freight volumes on Class I railroads are on a downgrade, and uncertainty in 2019 is looming like a blind curve in the dark.

Metaphors aside, the Association of American Railroads reported U.S. railroads in November originated 1,032,067 carloads, down 0.2%, and 1,100,815 containers and trailers, up 2.5% from the same month in 2017.

Combined U.S. carload and intermodal originations were 2,132,882, up 1.2%.

Nine of the 20 carload commodity categories tracked by the AAR saw carload gains from a year ago topped by petroleum, 29%; miscellaneous carloads, 13.7%, and primary metal products, 7.9%.

Weaker from a year ago were crushed stone, sand and gravel, 12.8%; motor vehicles, 5.5%, and coal, 0.8%.

“Rail traffic was not as strong in November as in other recent months. Total carloads fell for the first time in nine months, in part because of lower carloads of frac sand, while intermodal grew only modestly,” said AAR Senior Vice President John T. Gray. “November might just be a temporary correction as rail customers rebalance inventories. However, it would be prudent to keep an eye on forward-looking economic indicators. It’s much too soon to sound an economic alarm, but there is uncertainty, especially regarding trade policy, that is causing volatility in markets railroads serve.”

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Excluding coal, carloads gained 0.1%. Excluding coal and grain, carloads were up 0.4%.

Total U.S. traffic for the first 11 months of 2018 was 12,618,663 carloads, up 1.7%, and 13,376,733 intermodal units, up 5.5%, from 2017.

Total combined U.S. traffic for the first 48 weeks of 2018 was 25,995,396 carloads and intermodal units, an increase of 3.6%.

For the week ending December 1, U.S. rail traffic was 567,282 carloads and intermodal units, up 0.4% compared with the same week in 2017.

Total volume was 273,752 carloads, down 1.7%, while intermodal volume was 293,530 containers and trailers, up 2.4%.

Shipments for five of the 10 carload commodity groups were better on-year, led by crude oil, 24.6%; metallic ores and metals, 12.7%, and forest products, 5.2%

Grain fell by 12.8%, followed by nonmetallic minerals, 8.0%, and coal, 3.0%.

North American rail volume for the week on 12 reporting U.S., Canadian and Mexican railroads totaled 383,533 carloads, slower by 0.3%, and 382,810 intermodal units, gaining 0.9% on the prior-year period. Total combined weekly rail traffic in North America was 766,343 carloads and intermodal units, up 0.3%. North American rail volume for the first 48 weeks of 2018 was 35,122,715 carloads and intermodal units, up 3.3% compared with 2017.

Canadian railroads reported 88,579 carloads for the week, up 5.6%, and 70,838 intermodal units, down 2.5%. For the first 48 weeks of 2018, Canadian railroads reported cumulative rail volume of 7,266,602 carloads, containers and trailers, up 3.8%.

Mexican railroads reported 21,202 carloads for the week, down 4.8%, and 18,442 intermodal units, down 8.2%. Cumulative volume on Mexican railroads for the first 48 weeks of 2018 was 1,860,717 carloads and intermodal containers and trailers.

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