Q3 intermodal volumes head up, snapping six quarters of declines

By Jeff Berman, Group News Editor · November 4, 2020

Following a stretch of six consecutive quarterly declines, third quarter intermodal volumes broke serve and headed up, according to the Intermodal Quarterly report recently issued by the Intermodal Association of North America (IANA).

As IANA noted in its first and second quarter reports, 2020 intermodal volumes have been up against the collected negative impact of COVID-19 related shutdowns, as opposed to 2019 volumes, which were the primary driver for 2019’s lower volumes.

Total third quarter volume—at 4,719,462 units—rose 1.2% annually. Domestic containers—at 2,103,361—increased 9.8%, with trailers—at 325,802—up 9.8%. All domestic equipment—at 2,429,163—was also up 9.8%. ISO, or international, containers, were down 6.5%, to 2,290,299.

On a 2020 basis, this 1.2% third quarter increase followed a 6.7% first quarter decline and an 11.9% second quarter decline.

IANA attributed the third quarter increase to surging e-commerce orders and restocking efforts, as well as a bounce back for domestic equipment, with the 9.8% increase wiping out the second quarter’s 8.0% decrease.

As for the decline in ISO volumes, the 6.5% decline represented an improvement over the second quarter’s 15.4% loss. IANA noted that despite a 12.1% gain in West Coast imports, volumes were still down 9.2% annually for the region.

“Solid import growth on the West Coast could not turn international positive this quarter, as international competes heavily with domestic containers in the Northwest and Southwest regions due to transloading,” IANA wrote. “It is also possible that imports went into inventory in Q3 and could fuel Q4 intermodal loadings.”

Looking ahead, IANA explained that that “ongoing impacts of COVID-19 makes forecasting intermodal changes challenging,” adding that it expects total quarterly intermodal volume to continue to head up over the balance of 2020, at what it called a moderate pace, with: domestic container volumes pegged to increase 2%-to-4%; trailer loads to fall around 6% annually, still improving over double-digit losses year-to-date through July; intermodal is expected to fall at least 8%; and total intermodal volumes are projected to fall between 3%-to-5%.

“Projections have intermodal volumes staying strong through at least the end of this year,” IANA President and CEO Joni Casey told LM. “Given the volatility resulting from COVID-related shutdowns and the impact on the economy, it’s hard to tell what traffic will do going into Q1 of 2021.”

Addressing the impact of still-tight truckload capacity as a driver for intermodal gains, Casey said that is definitely a reason for gains in domestic intermodal volumes, along with the significant increases in e-commerce shipments. And she added that the pairing of inventory replenishment occurring in tandem with strong import volumes a major boost for intermodal, and e-commerce volume growth are also major catalysts.

As for the eventual outcome of the election and its potential impact on intermodal, she said it is still hard to tell.

“Infrastructure investment hasn’t been a stated priority for either candidate and at this point, it’s difficult to know how a Democratic administration might impact labor relations and trade policies,” she said.

November 4, 2020