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— by Pat Foran
Smack-dab in the middle of the information gathering for our annual "outlook" coverage, I attended the National Industrial Transportation League's (NITL) annual meeting, held Nov. 15-18 in Anaheim, Calif. For the most part, I was there to get a feel for what shippers and other freight transportation folks were thinking as we begin the long and winding climb back from the recessionary bottom most of us believe we've hit. I got that and more. A few takeaways:
That consistency prompted me to think about what I'd term as an increasing willingness among the rail and shipper lobbies to wean themselves off the "fightin' words" that for so long seemed to frame their discussions (or lack thereof). I think it's making a difference. By getting serious about getting past the contentiousness, they'll be able to move on to bigger issues — like figuring out how to convince policy shapers and the public to consent to a meaningful freight transportation policy. They're a ways off from moving on completely — picture an extraordinarily elongated "U." But the pilot light at the end of the tunnel, while it always could be a little brighter, is burning. Keeping the flame flickering ought to be a priority in 2010.
Another morsel from Economic Indicator Central: In February, volume at major U.S. container ports is projected to break a 31-month streak of year-over-year declines, according to the National Retail Federation's (NRF) and IHS Global Insight's latest "Port Tracker" report.
The 10 surveyed U.S. ports handled an estimated 1.17 million 20-foot equivalent units (TEUs) in October, which would represent a 15 percent year-over-year decline. November volume will drop 11 percent to 1.09 million TEUs and December's will be flat at 1.06 million TEUs, Port Tracker predicts. For the year, volume will total 12.7 million TEUs, a 16.8 percent decline compared with 2008 volume and the lowest since 2003's 12.47 million TEUs. In January, volume again will drop — 3 percent to 1.03 million TEUs, marking the 31st month of year-over-year declines. But in February, it'll rise 16 percent to 973,872 TEUs, Port Tracker predicts. Then, March volume is expected to increase 5 percent to 1.02 million TEUs.
"This could be the turnaround we've been waiting to see," said NRF Vice President for Supply Chain and Customs Policy Jonathan Gold in a prepared statement. "There's not enough data yet to establish a clear trend, but we're hopeful that this is a sign of recovery."
Pretty much like everybody else.