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U.S. rail carload and intermodal volumes are up at halfway point of 2017

United States rail carload and intermodal volumes reached the halfway point of 2017 in decent shape on the volume front, according to data issued this week by the Association of American Railroads (AAR). By Jeff Berman

United States rail carload and intermodal volumes reached the halfway point of 2017 in decent shape on the volume front, according to data issued this week by the Association of American Railroads (AAR).

For the month of June, U.S. rail carloads were up 4.4%, or 45,174 carloads, to 1,065,976, with eight of the ten carload commodities the AAR tracks seeing annual gains, including: coal, up 40,333 carloads or 13.2 percent; crushed stone, gravel, and sand, up 16,747 carloads or 18.5 percent; and chemicals, up 4,888 carloads or 4.1 percent.  Commodities that saw declines in June 2017 from June 2016 included motor vehicles and parts, down 7,168 carloads or 9.5 percent; petroleum & petroleum products, down 6,724 carloads or 15.2 percent; and metallic ores, down 2,025 carloads or 7.7 percent. When excluding coal from the totals, the AAR said that U.S. rail carloads rose 0.7% or 4,841, and when excluding coal and grain, June carloads headed up 0.6%, or 3,668 carloads.

Intermodal containers and trailers saw a 4.6%, or 49,425 units, annual increase in June to 1,113,575.

“Rail traffic indicators of the economy remain mixed. While some commodity groups, such as intermodal, chemicals, and crushed stone and sand (driven heavily by frac sand) set new all-time first half records and a few others like grain and coke set post-recession records, several other traffic categories continue to struggle,” said AAR Senior Vice President John T. Gray in a statement.  “All of this indicates an industrial economy that may not yet have a clear direction forward and one that continues to undergo structural change. It is a sign of the reality railroads constantly face: changing markets that are difficult to foresee and plan for.”

For the week ending July 1, U.S. carloads were up 2.3% annually at 270,353, and intermodal containers and trailers, saw a 4% annual gain to 276,008.

Through the first six months of 2017, U.S. carloads increased 6.4%, or 404,078 carloads, annually to 6,699,453, and intermodal containers and trailers increased 2.7%, or 179,515 units to 6,892,673. Intermodal set a new record for this time frame, topping the first six months of 2015 by 0.5% or 32,614 units.

With carload and intermodal volumes running close to the same levels, it speaks to a decent, while not spectacular, volume environment for both segments. And carloads are being bolstered by a bounce back in coal volumes, too, due to natural gas prices rising and higher coal export levels, too, even though the AAR observes coal volumes remain low when matched up against historical norms.

“The volumes at this point of the year are beyond just pretty good,” said Tony Hatch, president of New York-based ABH Consulting. “For each month, they are getting slightly better, and I think that will start to somewhat slow down, due to a reasonably healthy economy and a reasonably healthy rail economy, and the annual comparisons are incredibly easy. Coal has not bounced back, it has stabilized and is being compared to a weak period in 2016.”

About the author
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. Contact Jeff Berman

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