AAR: Railroads Working to Keep Network ‘Fluid’

Faced with these challenges—like others in the supply chain—railroads are hard at work with stakeholders “to keep the national rail network fluid,” Gray said in the Association of American Railroads’ (AAR) traffic report for August and the week ending Aug. 28, 2021. 

U.S. Class I railroads moved 934,762 carloads in August 2021, rising 4.1% (or 36,815 carloads) from last year; and 1,085,345 containers and trailers, dropping 3.3% (or 37,603 units). Total U.S. carload and intermodal originations for the month were 2,020,107, a loss of 788 carloads and intermodal units from August 2020.

(For July 2021 results, see “AAR: Rail Volumes ‘Decelerate’ in July”; for June 2021, see “Rail Traffic Gains Build in 2Q21.”; and for May 2021, see “AAR: May 2021 Traffic Results ‘Encouraging.’”)

In August 2021, 14 of the 20 carload commodity categories tracked by AAR each month saw carload gains compared with August 2020. These included coal, up 20,666 carloads or 8.4%; crushed stone, sand and gravel, up 7,955 carloads or 10.6%; and primary metal products, up 7,948 carloads or 26.1%. Commodities that saw declines in August 2021 from August 2020 included grain, down 15,539 carloads or 17.5%; motor vehicles and parts, down 10,640 carloads or 16.5%; and farm products excluding grain, down 1,253 carloads or 35.8%.

Excluding coal, carloads increased by 16,149, or 2.5%, in August 2021 vs. August 2020. Excluding coal and grain, carloads gained 31,688 carloads, or 5.6%.

Total U.S. carload traffic for the first eight months of 2021 was 7,841,957 carloads, a bump-up of 8.4%, or 610,364 carloads, from the same point last year; and 9,483,581 intermodal units, a 12.7% boost, or 1,071,679 containers and trailers, compared with 2020.

Total combined U.S. traffic for the first 34 weeks of the year was 17,325,538 carloads and intermodal units, up 10.8% vs. the same period in 2020.

Week 34 (Ending Aug. 28, 2021)

Total U.S. weekly rail traffic was 504,417 carloads and intermodal units, falling 0.7% compared with the same week in 2020.

Total carloads for the week ending Aug. 28, 2021, came in at 234,661, up 4.1% compared with the same point last year, while U.S. weekly intermodal volume reached 269,756 containers and trailers, down 4.6% from 2020.

This is the fourth consecutive week of intermodal losses. (See “Week 33: Carloads, Intermodal Drop”; “Week 32: Carloads Up, Intermodal Down”; and “Week 31: Is Intermodal Losing Steam?”)

According to Susquehanna Financial Group (SFG) Analyst Bascome Majors, rail volumes for week 34 were down 7% compared with the same week in 2019. He also found that the four-week trend was flat compared with 2020 and down 6% from 2019. Intermodal for the week ending Aug. 28, 2021 was down 1% from 2019, and the four-week trend for intermodal was flat with 2019, according to Majors’ analysis. (For more, see charts below.)

Chart courtesy of Susquehanna Financial Group. Sources: AAR, company reports, SFG Research

AAR reported that seven of the 10 carload commodity groups posted an increase vs. the same week in 2020. They included coal, up 5,586 carloads, to 68,330; metallic ores and metals, up 4,190 carloads, to 23,815; and nonmetallic minerals, up 3,434 carloads, to 33,272. Commodity groups that posted declines compared with 2020 were grain, down 4,420 carloads, to 17,260; motor vehicles and parts, down 3,307 carloads, to 13,302; and farm products excluding grain, and food, down 482 carloads, to 14,647.

North American rail volume for the week ending Aug. 28, 2021, on 12 reporting U.S., Canadian and Mexican railroads totaled 330,432 carloads, increasing 3.2% vs. the same week last year, and 356,346 intermodal units, decreasing 4.6%. Total combined weekly rail traffic in North America was 686,778 carloads and intermodal units, down 1%. North American rail volume for the first 34 weeks of 2021 came in at 23,620,753 carloads and intermodal units, up 9.6% from 2020.

Canadian railroads reported 74,515 carloads for the week, gaining 1.9%, and 71,918 intermodal units, losing 2.1% compared with the same 2020 period. For the first 34 weeks of 2021, they reported cumulative rail traffic volume of 5,046,182 carloads, containers and trailers, up 6.7%.

Mexican railroads reported 21,256 carloads for the week, declining 1.8% compared with the same week in 2020, and 14,672 intermodal units, dropping 16.9%. Their cumulative volume for the first 34 weeks of 2021 was 1,249,033 carloads and intermodal containers and trailers, up 5.5% vs. last year.

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