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AAR says 2011 volumes show gains compared to 2010

By Jeff Berman, Group News Editor
January 09, 2012

Railroad and intermodal volumes continued to move in the right direction in 2011, according to data released by the Association of American Railroads (AAR).

Total carload volume in 2011 at 15,155,992 was up 2.2 percent year-over-year compared to 2010’s 14,820,128 and up 9.7 percent over 2009’s roughly 13.8 million. And intermodal volume at 11,892,431 trailers and containers was up 5.4 percent year-over-year compared to 2010’s 11,283,151 trailers and containers and up 20.4 percent compared to 2009’s roughly 9.9 million units. 2009 represented the lowest annual carload and intermodal tallies on record, according to AAR data.

“A good beginning, some uncertainness in the middle, and then a good ending—that describes U.S. rail traffic in 2011,” said John Gray, AAR’s Senior Vice President for Policy and Economics, in a statement. “We continue to see hopeful economic signs, as the industry prepares for 2012.”

Despite the annual carload and intermodal gains over 2010, AAR officials said that there is a “ways to go before U.S. railroads recover all they lost in the recession.” In 2006, they said U.S. carload and intermodal volumes peaked prior to bottoming out during the depths of the recession in 2009, which saw carloads and intermodal trailers and containers down 20.2 percent and 19.6 percent lower than in 2006. While in 2011, carloads and intermodal were down 12.4 percent and 3.2 percent compared to 2006.

What’s more, the AAR explained that U.S. railroads have recovered roughly 38 percent of the carload traffic lost in the recession from the 2006 peak, while intermodal has returned 84 percent of lost volumes during the same timeframe.

The significant bounce back on the intermodal side has been in the works in a strong way over the last two years, due to a strong performance on the domestic container side. Domestic containers in 2011—at 10,171,464—were up 6.0 percent over 2010 and accounted for 85.5 percent of total 2011 intermodal volume. Trailers—at 1,720,967—were up 2.2 percent compared to 2010.

“Despite the many economic headwinds throughout 2011, the railroad industry, in a sense, chugged right through it,” said Anthony B. Hatch, principal of New York-based ABH Consulting. “These numbers are not a big surprise, especially on the intermodal side.”

But compared to previous years when there was a sense of visibility into key industrial and consumer drivers that drove rail and intermodal volumes, Hatch noted that shippers are not low willing to publicly share those expectations and forecasts as they once were, which, in turn, makes things more uncertain in terms of planning.

Even with the lack of visibility, Hatch said there is no reason not to expect to see a continuation of the volume trends that were at work in 2011 again in 2012. As an example, he said it is reasonable to expect good numbers in 2012 for shale business and natural gas-related numbers, as well continued intermodal growth.

“Intermodal via international and extremely good domestic are definitely possible,” he said. “Coal also looks good and agriculture is in a long-term upswing.”

The AAR said that 14 of the 20 cargo commodities it tracks were up in 2011 compared to 2010. Metallic ores were up 67,631 carloads or 20.5 percent percent, primary metal products were up 56,988 carloads or 12 percent, and petroleum products were up 36,811 carloads or 11.1 percent.

Not surprisingly, coal represented 44.5 percent of non-intermodal U.S. carloads at 6,749,436 carloads, which was up 0.3 percent from 2010 and up 1.5 percent from 2009. Rounding out the top three commodity carload totals in 2011 were agricultural and food products at 1,994,511 for a 2.6 percent annual decrease and chemical and petroleum at 1,917,338, which was up 4.8 percent compared to 2010.

About the Author

Jeff Berman headshot
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. .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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