U.S. rail traffic ended 2012 the same way the year began: with mixed results. So for all of 2012, U.S. carloads totaled 14.7 million units, down 3.1 percent, and intermodal volume totaled 12.3 million units, up 3.2 percent compared with 2011 data, according to the Association of American Railroads (AAR).
Intermodal volume reached the second-highest total on record, down only 0.1 percent from the high-water mark set in 2006, while 12 of 20 carload commodity categories posted gains, led by petroleum products (46.3 percent), motor vehicles and parts (16.5 percent), crushed stone, sand and gravel (7.9 percent), and lumber and wood products (13 percent).
Chemical volumes registered growth through the fourth quarter, increasing 11 percent compared with fourth-quarter 2011, primarily because of continued secular growth in shale-related crude oil carloads, Robert W Baird & Co. Inc. analysts said in their latest "Rail Flash" report. In the quarter, BNSF Railway Co.'s crude oil traffic skyrocketed 90 percent, Norfolk Southern Railway's soared 62 percent, Union Pacific railroad's ballooned 55 percent and CSX Corp.'s climbed 43 percent, they said.
On the other hand, the biggest carload decliners in 2012 were coal (10.8 percent), grain (9.5 percent) and metallic ores (5.7 percent). Excluding coal and grain, U.S. carloads rose 4.9 percent last year.
"Coal and grain typically account for around half of U.S. rail carloads, so when they're down, chances are good that overall rail carloads are down too," said AAR Senior Vice President John Gray in a prepared statement. "That said, a number of key rail carload categories showed solid improvement in 2012, including categories like autos and lumber that are most highly correlated with economic growth."
In December, U.S. carloads dropped 4.2 percent to 1,086,990 units and intermodal volume increased 1.7 percent to 888,002 units compared with December 2011 totals. And for the week ending Dec. 29, carloads fell 13.8 percent to 211,921 units while intermodal volume sagged 14 percent to 155,800 units.
Meanwhile, Canadian railroads in 2012 handled 4,009,097 carloads, up 2 percent, and 2,673,314 containers and trailers, up 6.6 percent versus 2011. In the year's last full week, their carloads declined 9.9 percent to 59,978 units and intermodal volume inched up 0.3 percent to 34,844 units.
Mexican railroads' carloads last year increased 1.3 percent to 749,024 units and intermodal volume climbed 19 percent to 519,259 units compared with 2011. Their week No. 52 carloads dipped 1.9 percent to 10,307 units and intermodal loads rose 11.6 percent to 6,391 units.
Combined North American rail volume for all of 2012 from 13 reporting U.S., Canadian and Mexican railroads shows carloads declined 2 percent to 19,440,940 units while intermodal loads rose 4.2 percent to 15,459,909 containers and trailers compared with 2011 figures.
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