For 2021, Intermodal Record Collapses in Second Half

Written by Marybeth Luczak, Executive Editor
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In 2021, U.S. intermodal’s “record-setting” first half gave way to a lower second half as supply chain challenges persisted, reported Association of American Railroads Senior Vice President John T. Gray on Jan. 5; December volumes continued the downward trend, coming in 8.2% lower than the prior-year period, according to AAR figures.

“Still, 2021 was the second-best U.S. intermodal year ever, behind only 2018,” Gray noted in AAR’s Jan. 5 rail traffic report. “On the carload side [in 2021], chemicals set a new annual record and grain had its best year since 2008. Coal carloads were up substantially because of sharply higher natural gas prices, while carloads of motor vehicles suffered as microchip shortages forced automakers to cut output.”

According to AAR, U.S. Class I’s hauled 1,224,780 containers and trailers in December 2021, down 109,729 units (8.2%) from the same month in 2020; and 1,135,835 carloads, up 33,918 carloads (3.1%). Combined, U.S. carload and intermodal originations for the month were 2,360,615, falling by 75,811 carloads and intermodal units (3.1%) from December 2020.

(For November 2021 results, which were similar, see “AAR: U.S. Carload Traffic Up 7% in 2021”; for October, see “AAR: Rails Feeling Supply Chain Challenges ‘Most Keenly’ in Terminals”; for September, see “AAR: No Single Solution to the Intermodal Problem”; for August, see “AAR: Railroads Working to Keep Network ‘Fluid’”; for July, see “AAR: Rail Volumes ‘Decelerate’ in July”; for June, see “Rail Traffic Gains Build in 2Q21”; and for May 2021, see “AAR: May 2021 Traffic Results ‘Encouraging.’”)

In December 2021, 14 of the 20 carload commodity categories tracked by the AAR saw carload gains from December 2020. These included: coal, up 21,871 carloads or 7.4%; crushed stone, sand and gravel, up 17,926 carloads or 25.3%; and chemicals, up 9,675 carloads or 6%. Commodities that saw declines in December 2021 from December 2020 included: grain, down 12,701 carloads or 9.9%; motor vehicles and parts, down 8,637 carloads or 12.6%; and petroleum and petroleum products, down 5,560 carloads or 10%.

Excluding coal, carloads rose by 12,047, or 1.5%, in December 2021 vs. the year-earlier period. Excluding coal and grain, carloads increased by 24,748, or 3.7%.

Total U.S. carload traffic for 2021 came in at 12,010,274, up 6.6%, or 744,646 carloads, from 2020; and 14,142,442 intermodal units, up 4.9%, or 665,528 containers and trailers, from the prior year.

Total combined U.S. traffic for 2021 was 26,152,716 carloads and intermodal units, a 5.7% boost compared with 2020.

Week 52 (Ending Jan. 1, 2022)

Total U.S. rail traffic for the week ending Jan. 1, 2022 was 395,371 carloads and intermodal units, a 6.3% fall-off from the same point for 2020. (Note: The week ending Jan. 2, 2021, was the 53rd week in 2020, since five of its days fell in 2020, according to AAR. Also, “Yearoveryear comparisons are always made to the week that was 52 weeks [364 days] earlier.” Download the complete explanation below.)

Total carloads for the week ending Jan. 1, 2022, came in at 205,836, a 1.7% bump-up compared with the same point for 2020, while U.S. weekly intermodal volume was 189,535 containers and trailers, dropping 13.7%. This was the 22nd consecutive week of intermodal losses. (For more, see “Rail Traffic Uptick for Week 51.”)

Seven of the 10 carload commodity groups posted an increase compared with the same week for 2020. They included coal, up 4,246 carloads, to 59,264; nonmetallic minerals, up 3,312 carloads, to 23,060; and metallic ores and metals, up 1,374 carloads, to 21,841. Commodity groups that posted decreases compared with the same week for 2020 were grain, down 5,087 carloads, to 19,698; petroleum and petroleum products, down 1,257 carloads, to 9,006; and miscellaneous carloads, down 627 carloads, to 7,273.

North American rail volume for the week ending Jan. 1, 2022, on 12 reporting U.S., Canadian and Mexican railroads totaled 279,411 carloads, dipping 3.4% compared with the same week for 2020, and 248,188 intermodal units, decreasing 13.5%. Total combined weekly rail traffic in North America was 527,599 carloads and intermodal units, down 8.4%. North American rail volume for the first 52 weeks of 2021 was 35,585,222 carloads and intermodal units, up 4.5% compared with 2020.

Canadian railroads reported 57,153 carloads for the week, down 23.2%, and 47,709 intermodal units, down 18% compared with the same week for 2020. For the first 52 weeks of 2021, they reported cumulative rail traffic volume of 7,556,277 carloads, containers and trailers, up 0.6%.

Mexican railroads reported 16,422 carloads for the week, gaining 30.4% vs. the same week for 2020, and 10,944 intermodal units, growing 20.4%. Their cumulative volume for the first 52 weeks of 2021 was 1,876,229 carloads and intermodal containers and trailers, up 4.7% from the same point for 2020.

For the 2020 year-end wrap up, see “AAR: ‘Railroads Looking to the Future.’”

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