2015 rail carload and intermodal volumes are mixed, reports AAR
January 07, 2016
While 2015 did not see the as much of the service and weather-related issues as 2014 did, total U.S. rail carload and intermodal volumes did not see annual growth for various other factors, according to data issued by the Association of American Railroads (AAR).
2015 U.S. rail carloads were down 6.1 percent annually at 14,266,204 compared to 2014’s 15,176,835, which marked the highest annual level for U.S. rail carloads since 2008, according to AAR data.
As for intermodal, total 2015 U.S. container and trailer volume was up 1.6 percent at 13,710,646 units compared to 2014’s 13,496,941. The 2015 tally topped 2014 as the new annual high for U.S. intermodal volume. The previous high prior to the last two years was 2013’s 12,831,692.
Total 2015 U.S. rail carload and intermodal units––at 27,976,850––was down 2.5 percent or 698,391 carloads and intermodal units compared to 2015.
“Weaknesses in energy and manufacturing, as well as, world economic softening, had a negative impact on both carload and intermodal traffic in 2015,” said AAR Senior Vice President of Policy and Economics John T. Gray. “Railroads can’t do much about the macroeconomic environment, but what they have done and are doing is making sure they operate safely and efficiently to maximize their customers’ opportunities to grow their own business. The nation’s railroads are well positioned to serve their customers in 2016.”
The ongoing intermodal growth continues to highlight recurring themes cited by the AAR and industry stakeholders that note intermodal’s cost-effectiveness in moving rail intermodal shipments, especially in comparison to trailers, as containers can be double-stacked and are easier to load onto and take off a railroad flat car than trailers.
Larry Gross, senior consultant at freight transportation consultancy FTR, said that prospects for international intermodal into the U.S. figure to be promising with unemployment relatively low, growth in the consumer economy, and consumers having more disposable due to lower gas prices.
“The fundamentals are in place, at least on the consumer side, to support import growth,” he said. “But the domestic intermodal piece has more going on with growth slowing mostly because of the combined effect of truck capacity lower fuel prices and the hangover from service issues that now have been largely resolved.”
Of the 10 carload commodity categories tracked by the AAR, four saw annual increases in 2015. Motor vehicles and parts were up 2.9 percent at 906,411 and chemicals were up 0.4 percent at 1,568,215.
Gross said carloads are seeing a mix of cyclical and secular things, with the ongoing large declines in coal and the overall energy sector driving the annual declines.
“These volumes, specifically coal, are not coming back,” explained Gross. “That presents the question of whether coal volumes will stabilize or continue to head down. Along with coal, crude by rail shipments and frac sand and metals are all down, which is a secular item. What this is saying is that the U.S. industrial economy is flat on its back right now, which leaves the railroads in a difficult position.”
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