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The freight-rail industry demonstrated resilience and reliability during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a new report by the Northwestern University Transportation Center (NUTC).
Titled "The U.S. Railroads and COVID-19: Keeping Supply Chains Moving," the report shares NUTC's results from analyzing shipment data, reviewing research literature and gathering insights from railroads, intermodal carriers, rail equipment manufacturers, rail-car leasing companies, shippers and major e-commerce companies. It includes contributions from the Association of American Railroads.
NUTC researchers found that freight railroads kept goods moving while facing supply chain disruptions — such as port congestion, chassis shortages and truck freight load rejections — whereas other transportation modes were constrained or delayed.
Rail's role was key in accommodating rapid intermodal traffic growth spurred by the pandemic, which stemmed largely from heightened e-commerce use. The e-commerce industry grew by 70% over the past two decades, the report states.
NUTC's analysis shows that 2020 intermodal rail freight exceeded pre-pandemic expectations, driving third-quarter and fourth-quarter volumes past both 2019 and 2018 levels.