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In a year roiled by a global pandemic, total combined U.S. freight-rail traffic fell 7.2% to 25,157,476 carloads and intermodal units during the 53 weeks of 2020 compared with the same period in 2019, according to Association of American Railroads data.
U.S. carload traffic for the 12 months of 2020 totaled 11,482,059 units, down 12.9%, and 13,675,417 containers and trailers, down 1.8%.
Before the pandemic began in March 2020, railroads started the year on "less than ideal footing" due to a weakened manufacturing sector and lower port activity caused by trade disputes, said AAR Senior Vice President John Gray in a press release.
Despite logging near-record traffic declines during the early months of 2020, U.S. railroads rallied to close the year with volume close to pre-pandemic levels, Gray said. That result was sparked by sharply higher grain and intermodal shipments, along with the reopening of auto assembly plants.
"It's no surprise that rail volumes were down for the year overall, but railroads are looking to the future," Gray said. "Their experience in 2020 along with huge ongoing network investments have made the industry more adaptable and better able to adjust to the demands of a wide range of operational and market conditions. Railroads are well prepared to help our economy grow in 2021."
In December, U.S. railroads hauled 2,435,819 carloads and intermodal units in December, a 4.4% increase compared with the same month in 2019. Total carloads fell 3.7% to 1,101,324 units during the month, while intermodal volume climbed 12.2% to 1,334,495 containers and trailers.
Ten of the 20 carload commodity categories tracked by AAR each month posted carload gains last month compared with December 2019's levels. They included grain, up 27.9%; chemicals, up 3.7%; and iron and steel scrap, up 12.9%. Commodities that logged declines during the month included coal, down 14.5%; crushed stone, sand and gravel, down 14.8%; and petroleum and petroleum products, down 15.8%.