April intermodal volumes largely saw declines, according to data provided to LM by the Intermodal Association of America (IANA).
Total April volume—at 1,536,330 units—were down 6.1% annually. Trailers—at 79,818—saw a 24.9% annual decrease. All domestic equipment, which is comprised of trailers and domestic containers, was down 1.6%, to 783,720 units. ISO, or international, containers—at 752,610—saw a 10.4% decrease.
Through the first four months of 2022, total intermodal volume—at 5,849,235 units—is down 6.5% annually. Domestic containers—at 2,750,112—are up 4.4%, and trailers—at 349,467—are down 15.9%. All domestic equipment—at 3,099,579—increased 1.6%, and ISO containers are off 14.1%, to 2,749,656.
Heading into 2022, IANA forecasted total North American volumes to increase 2.9% annually, with domestic containers pegged at a 4.8% growth rate, and for trailer and ISO volumes to be down 5.0% and up 2.3%, respectively. And, for the first quarter, IANA reported that total intermodal volume—at 4,312,905—is down 6.6% annually. Domestic containers—at 2,046,210—are up 5.2%, and trailers—at 269,649—are down 12.8%. All domestic equipment (comprised of trailers and domestic containers)—at 2,315,859—is up 2.8%. ISO containers are down 15.5%, to 1,997,046.
As previously reported, the 6.6% annual volume decline, for the quarter, followed a 9.8% and a 2.9% decline, for the fourth and third quarters, respectively, according to IANA data. And the organization noted that the first quarter had what it called “quite a negative economic impact,” due to the surge in the Omicron variant, which was evident, with January volumes off 13.3% annually. What’s more, IANA observed that first quarter volume came in at its third-smallest level over the last four years, with both the first quarter and second quarter of 2020 both lower volume quarters than the first quarter of 2022.
While trailers were down 12.8%, IANA said that the segment has seen secular declines, while accounting for just 6.3% of total North American intermodal volume, with the 5.2% domestic containers gain marked only the second time that domestic volume topped international volume over the last 21 years (by a 2.5% margin). And it added that there were 3.1% more domestic containers shipments than international container shipments in the fourth quarter of 2021.
But that trend is considered atypical, IANA observed, as every other quarter over the course of this century has seen lower numbers of domestic containers than international containers, adding that import containers dealt with delays and congestion in crowded ports and then were often transloaded into domestic containers, at a time when domestic trucking capacity was tight.
As to whether ISO volumes will eventually return to exceeding domestic volumes in the coming quarters, IAN President and CEO Joni Casey told LM that based on historical data trends, international volumes should pull ahead of domestic traffic in the coming quarters.
“It’s hard to predict when this will happen though,” she said. “Additional international container capacity and more consistent trade flows would drive this rebalancing. However, COVID lockdowns in China are a reminder of continued volatility in the intermodal supply chain.”
Looking at the state of intermodal service levels, Casey said that the service level issued experienced over the second half of 2021—in the form of facility capacity and congestion, driver and labor shortages, equipment misalignment, and adverse weather in some intermodal regions—continued, to some extent, in the first quarter.
And with truckload capacity showing signs of loosening up, Casey said she views the competition between intermodal and truckload as constant and highlighted by cyclical truckload capacity. And she said that it is worth highlighting the 5.5% increase in domestic container volumes in the first quarter.
When asked about the impact of inflation on intermodal, Casey said that with trains consuming far less fuel than over-the-road trucking, fuel inflation could theoretically advantage intermodal, while being only one of several variables affecting the market.
As for whether the market is in a freight recession, she said that is not the case.
“There isn’t currently a freight recession—some market segments are down vs. others, but the increasing commitments of adding container capacity, labor, and routes (service) bode well for an anticipated return to more normalized volumes across the board within the next year,” she said.