AAR reports annual gains in November for U.S. carload and intermodal volumes

For the month of November, the AAR reported that U.S. carloads were up 0.4 percent, or 5,406 carloads, at 1,319,008 for its first monthly annual increase in 22 months, going back to January 2015. This is a longer stretch of declines than a 19-month run of downward volumes that occurred during the Great Recession, the AAR said, adding that one factor behind the November increase was easier annual comparisons, coupled with how carloads did not see as much of an October to November decline as usual this year.

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In a year in which United States rail carload and intermodal volumes could be viewed as middling to a large degree, data issued by the Association of American Railroads (AAR) this week showed some positive progress.

For the month of November, the AAR reported that U.S. carloads were up 0.4 percent, or 5,406 carloads, at 1,319,008 for its first monthly annual increase in 22 months, going back to January 2015. This is a longer stretch of declines than a 19-month run of downward volumes that occurred during the Great Recession, the AAR said, adding that one factor behind the November increase was easier annual comparisons, coupled with how carloads did not see as much of an October to November decline as usual this year.

But it also noted that the weekly carload average in November of 263,802 was up annually but was still lower than any other month going back to 1998.

And 11 of the 20 carload commodity categories tracked by the AAR, including: grain, up 18.6 percent or 20,209 carloads; chemicals, up 1.9 percent or 2,714 carloads; and waste and nonferrous scrap, up 13.1 percent or 2,202 carloads, saw annual gains. Some of the commodities seeing declines in November were petroleum and petroleum products, down 15.4 percent or 9,813 carloads; coal, down 2 percent or 9,282 carloads; and motor vehicles and parts, down 3.5 percent or 3,134 carloads. And when removing coal from total volumes, the AAR said November carloads saw a larger annual gain, up 1.7 percent, or 14,688 carloads, in November.

Through the first 48 weeks of 2016, carloads are down 9 percent, or 1,195,299, annually to 12,123,218.

U.S. intermodal containers and trailers in November saw a 1.9 percent, or 29,735 units, annual increase to 1,319,189 for its first annual gain in 9 months. The AAR noted that depending on where December volumes come in, 2016 will end up being the second or third highest intermodal month on record. And it explained that given the weak domestic economy for most of the year, large inventory overhangs, weakness in economies abroad and a strong dollar that have constrained U.S. exports, and the stronger than usual competition from trucks (due to, among other things, cheaper diesel and truck overcapacity), intermodal has had a decent year.

What’s more, the AAR said that railroad and intermodal stakeholders are counting on intermodal volume growth going forward, with the caveat that but since around half of rail intermodal consists of exports and imports, that would be difficult if the United States does not remain committed to fair and open international trade.

U.S. intermodal volumes are down 2.5 percent, or 322,386 containers and trailers, at 12,478,621, through the first 48 weeks of 2016.

“There are glimmers of hope in rail traffic data in November, with carloads and intermodal totals both up over last year - something that hasn't happened for carloads in 22 months and for intermodal in nine months,” said AAR Senior Vice President of Policy and Economics John T. Gray. “Hopefully, these results are indicators of continuing future growth for the manufacturing economy, for trade, and for rail traffic. It appears that economic fundamentals are trending toward more positive results than have been seen in the recent past.”

Independent rail analyst Tony Hatch observed in a research note that rail volumes seem to have inflected in the middle of the third quarter, which is only slightly later than expected at the beginning of 2016, with visibility starting to return to freight rail after a few years of turmoil around things like secular changes in energy and a freight recession, among others. 


About the Author

Jeff Berman, Group News Editor
Jeff Berman is Group News Editor for Logistics Management, Modern Materials Handling, and Supply Chain Management Review. Jeff works and lives in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, where he covers all aspects of the supply chain, logistics, freight transportation, and materials handling sectors on a daily basis. Contact Jeff Berman

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Article Topics

AAR · carload · intermodal · Railroad Shipping · All Topics
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