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AAR: U.S. rail carload activity drops to Great Recession levels


The impact of the coronavirus pandemic on U.S. freight-rail traffic is growing, with the number of carloads and intermodal containers and trailers transported during the week ending April 4 tumbling 15.9 percent to 429,095 units compared with volumes logged in the same week a year ago, according to the Association of American Railroads (AAR).

Total carloads for the week plunged 16.2 percent to 210,911 units, while intermodal volume dropped 15.7 percent to 218,184 containers and trailers.

AAR officials haven't witnessed sustained declines of carloads at the current level since the Great Recession, said AAR Senior Vice President John Gray in a press release.

"Since 1988, when our data begin, total U.S. rail carloads were lower than they were last week only during a few Christmas and New Year's weeks, when rail operations are seasonally low," he said. "Part of the problem now is sustained weakness in coal carloads, but even excluding coal, carloads last week were down 13.1 percent."

Two of the 10 carload commodity groups that AAR tracks on a weekly basis posted increases last week compared with the same week in 2019. They were miscellaneous carloads, up 1,369 units to 10,336; and forest products, up 127 units to 9,916.

Commodity groups that posted decreases during the week included coal, down 17,587 carloads to 57,504; motor vehicles and parts, down 14,389 carloads to 3,171; and nonmetallic minerals, down 4,526 carloads to 31,527.

"The worst performing commodity category last week was autos and auto parts, with North American carloads down 84 percent from what they were just three weeks ago," said Gray. "It wasn't just autos, though. Last week, 13 of the 20 U.S. carload categories we track [on a monthly basis], representing 87 percent of total carloads, saw year-over-year declines, including big declines in steel scrap, steel products, nonferrous scrap, crushed stone and sand, and petroleum products."

The rail data reflects the pandemic's impact on U.S. industry sectors, Gray added.

Meanwhile, China is in its very early stages of recovery. When or if that starts to impact North American intermodal volumes will depend largely on consumer spending, he said.

"That, in turn, will depend on how long social distancing steps must remain in place; how well and how quickly federal and state unemployment insurance and other programs fill gaps in household cash flows; and how much the current situation causes consumers to lose long-term confidence and remain in retrench mode not just when health concerns begin to recede, but more importantly, when they have been largely resolved," said Gray.

Also during the week ending April 4, Canadian railroads logged 73,841 carloads, down 17.1 percent; and 63,604 intermodal units, down 12.7 percent compared with the same week last year. Mexican railroads posted 16,482 carloads for the week, down 21.8 percent.

For the first 14 weeks of 2020 compared with the same period a year ago:
• U.S. railroads reported 6,600,431 carloads and intermodal units, down 8.1 percent;
• Canadian railroads reported 1,976,487 carloads, intermodal containers and trailers, down 3.7 percent; and
• Mexican railroads reported 509,825 carloads, containers and trailers, up 0.3 percent.

Contact Progressive Railroading editorial staff.

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