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Rail News: Rail Industry Trends

AAR: March rail traffic reflects pandemic's impact on U.S. economy


U.S. freight railroad traffic trends in March show the hit the U.S. economy is taking as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, Association of American Railroads (AAR) data shows.

U.S. railroads logged 1,835,053 carloads and intermodal units last month, a 9.3 percent decrease compared with February's levels, AAR reported in a press release.

Total carloads during the month fell 6 percent to 899,673, while intermodal volume plunged 12.2 percent to 935,380 containers and trailers compared with the same month a year ago.

Half of the 20 carload commodity categories that AAR tracks every month posted carload gains compared with March 2019. They included chemicals, up 5,881 carloads or 4.6 percent; all other carloads, up 2,108 carloads or 9.5 percent; and petroleum and petroleum products, up 1,688 carloads or 3.5 percent.

Commodities that logged declines last month included coal, down 43,611 carloads or 15.9 percent; motor vehicles and parts, down 11,053 carloads or 15.9 percent; and crushed stone, sand and gravel, down 10,482 carloads or 12 percent.

"Rail traffic numbers confirm that the coronavirus is taking a toll on the economy," said AAR Senior Vice President John Gray. "For example, U.S. carloads of autos and auto parts last week were down 70 percent from the same week last year as auto production declined to zero and consumer spending has begun to shrink demand."

While intermodal volume during the week ending March 28 tumbled 14 percent overall, total movements for the five railroads that serve the West Coast ports remained steady for a fifth consecutive week, Gray noted. That trend reinforces the expectation "that we may have seen the bottoming of the Asia-North America trade," he said.

However, traffic in the last week of March also showed that the recent collapse in oil prices is hurting rail shipments of petroleum products, frac sand and steel products, Gray added.

"While there remain more unknowns than knowns about the next few months, there are tidbits of encouraging news," he said. "For example, year-over-year carloads of grain were up in March for the first time in a year and March was the best month for rail chemical carloads in two years."

Excluding coal, carloads fell 2 percent versus a year ago. Excluding coal and grain, carloads were down 2.5 percent.

Total U.S. carload traffic for the first three months was 2,993,051 units, down 6.3 percent. Intermodal volume slipped 8.6 percent to 3,178,285 containers and trailers. Combined, U.S. freight railroads logged 6,171,336 carloads and intermodal units during the three-month period, a 7.5 percent decreased compared to the same period last year.

Contact Progressive Railroading editorial staff.

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