AAR reports declining October U.S. rail carloads record intermodal volumes

By Jeff Berman, Group News Editor · November 6, 2020

United States rail carload and intermodal volumes, for the month of October, were mixed, with the latter turning in its best monthly performance on record, according to data issued this week by the Association of American Railroads (AAR).

Rail carloads—at 912,772—fell 6.6%, or 64,634 carloads—annually. And AAR reported that 10 of the 20 carload commodity groups it tracks saw annual gains, including: grain, up 21,557 carloads or 25.5 percent; iron & steel scrap, up 3,579 carloads or 29.1 percent; and waste & nonferrous scrap, up 1,527 carloads or 11.2 percent. Commodities that saw declines in October 2020 from October 2019 included: coal, down 56,343 carloads or 19.1 percent; crushed stone, sand & gravel, down 14,275 carloads or 16.0 percent; and petroleum & petroleum products, down 10,199 carloads or 20.0 percent.

When excluding coal, U.S. October rail carloads were off 8,291 carloads, or 1.2%, annually, and when excluding coal and grain, they were down 29,848 carloads, or 5.0%.

Intermodal containers and trailers—at 1,169,874—increased 10%, or 105,966 units, annually on route to the highest-volume intermodal month on record.

“Thanks largely to rising imports and inventory restocking in preparation for the holidays, October was the best month ever for U.S. rail intermodal, with volumes up by a third from April of this year. That’s a stunning increase in six months,” said AAR Senior Vice President John T. Gray in a statement. “Meanwhile, U.S. rail carloads rose in October for 10 of the 20 carload categories we track, the most since the pandemic began. Carloads of grain in October were their highest in 13 years, while carloads of motor vehicles and parts have recovered after falling close to 90% earlier this year. Changes in energy markets continue to pressure carloads of coal, petroleum products, and frac sand and holding back total carloads. Excluding those three categories, carloads in October were a few percentage points higher than last year.”

Through the first ten months of 2020, U.S. rail carloads are down 14.5%, or 1,608,065, to 9,480,575, and intermodal units are off 4.4%, or 517,668 units, to 11,204,234 units.

For the week ending October 31, U.S. rail carloads came in at 227,347, for a 7.3% annual decline. And intermodal units, at 293,341, are up 10.8% annually.

In a recent interview, AAR President and CEO Ian Jefferies told LM that when looking at where the freight railroad sector was in the March, April, and early May timeframe, when annual volumes were, on average, down 25%-to-28%, railroads have made a pretty impressive comeback on the traffic front from then to now.

“Intermodal has been performing at a very high level, with the third week of September being the third-highest week of intermodal movements ever in the history of the industry,” he said. “That gives you a sense of how strong things have been on the intermodal front, and we are certainly looking for that to continue to be strong.”

And he added other areas are showing strength, too, with railroads carrying moving the majority of finished automobiles, noting that when that sector experience a shutdown over the initial months of the pandemic, that subsequently shut down that portion of rail traffic. But with automobiles back online, Jefferies explained that railroads are now moving trucks and cars again and are starting to show annual gains, for weekly comparisons.

“Agriculture and grain continue to do well, as go into a strong harvest season,” he said. “There also continue to be laggards in the energy space, and things are not exactly where we want them to be across the board. But we are certainly encouraged by the positive direction that volumes have been taking, and we will continue to do everything we can to work with our customers and communities to keep that pointed in the right direction.”

November 6, 2020