Intermodal volumes see further declines in April, reports IANA

By Jeff Berman, Group News Editor · May 21, 2020

April intermodal volumes continued to highlight the ongoing impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on intermodal volumes, according to data provided to LM by the Intermodal Association of North America (IANA).

Total shipments for the month—at 1,280,309—were off 15% annually. Domestic containers—at 523,732—were off 14.7%, while trailers—at 71,086—slumped 30.5%%. All domestic equipment—at 594,818—was off 17%. ISO, or international, containers—at 685,491—saw a 13.2% decline.

On a year-to-date basis through April, IANA reported the following:

domestic containers fell 2.0% to 2,386,231;

trailers were down 25% to 328,891;

all domestic equipment was off 5.6% to 2,715,122; and

ISO containers declined 11.8% to 2,743,176

IANA recently observed in its Intermodal Quarterly report that COVID-19 related issues continue to impact both domestic container and international volumes, especially in the form of auto plant and other manufacturing shutdowns across North America, coupled with declining imports, which it said made for a difficult start to 2020.

On the domestic side, IANA pointed to weak comparisons and an increase in conversions to containers as the drivers for domestic container growth. And addressing the further ISO decline, it explained that the first quarter is typically a volatile time for imports, due to manufacturing shutdowns over the Chinese New Year. But this year that was exacerbated, due to the shutdowns being extended well past that because of COVID-19 issues.

As for trailers, IANA President and CEO Joni Casey said that trailers were expected to fall significantly prior to COVID-19 but are now expected to decline even more.

“This is the smallest portion of intermodal moves and had been on a continual decline before the resurgence during 2017-2018,” she said. “Losses can be attributed to conversions to containers and looser conditions in truckload, LTL, parcel and temperature-controlled markets.”

Looking ahead, Casey explained that the COVID-19 impact on intermodal volume makes it challenging to forecast volumes.

“Additional declines are expected to continue and increase in Q2… while domestic volume could surge back during Q3,” she said. “International volumes may continue to fall for the rest of 2020, reflecting the low demand for imports as well as the impact of tariffs, most of which remain in place.”

IANA added in the report that domestic container loads also
 are expected to fall between 15% and 20%, as demand is low, fuel prices have fallen drastically, and transloads of imports are expected to decline.

“Overall, total intermodal loadings are forecast
 to fall about 15% for all of 2020,” the report said. “Yet all those dealing with intermodal should know it is very difficult to confirm where this will go this year.”

Larry Gross, president of Gross Transportation Consulting, recently told LM that intermodal has been severely affected by the pandemic.

“We are in what I will call chapter two of the story,” he said. “Intermodal really got affected even before all of the shutdowns began, because of the heavy import/export orientation for intermodal, which accounts for, perhaps, 60% of total intermodal activity, when you include trans loading, as well as the movement of ISO [international] containers. And that was affected even back in March pretty dramatically by the disruptions that were occurring due to the virus in China. We had an extended Lunar New Year holiday shutdown in China, as China was dealing with the initial outbreak of the virus in Wuhan, and that dramatically affected the international cargo that was arriving here. So, now we are into chapter two, in which China has begun to recover, and its production has come back, but it is running smack into a weak demand situation here in the U.S. because of the pandemic. March was, I guess, ‘the door opener,’ in terms of the downturn.”


May 21, 2020