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Supply Chain Industry Updates

Rail Freight Starts to Chug Along, Though There Are Miles to Go Before it Returns to 2019 Levels


Intermodal traffic set a volume record in October, propelled by preparations for the 2020 holiday season. Not all metrics in the Association of American Railroads (AAR) October report were positive, but the overall trend showed improvement from earlier this spring.

“Thanks largely to rising imports and inventory restocking in preparation for the holidays, October was the best month ever for U.S. rail intermodal, with volumes up by a third from April of this year. That’s a stunning increase in six months,” said AAR Senior Vice President John T. Gray in a statement. “Meanwhile, U.S. rail carloads rose in October for 10 of the 20 carload categories we track, the most since the pandemic began.  Carloads of grain in October were their highest in 13 years, while carloads of motor vehicles and parts have recovered after falling close to 90% earlier this year.  Changes in energy markets continue to pressure carloads of coal, petroleum products and frac sand and [are] holding back total carloads.  Excluding those three categories, carloads in October were a few percentage points higher than last year.”

AAR said U.S. railroads originated 912,772 carloads in October 2020, down 6.6 percent from October 2019. U.S. railroads also originated 1,169,874 containers and trailers in October 2020, up 10.0 percent from the same month last year. Combined U.S. carload and intermodal originations in October 2020 were 2,082,646, an increase of 2.0 percent from a year earlier.

Improvements from last spring were welcome news, but the rail freight industry still has a way to go to make up for losses suffered in 2020. AAR reported that total combined U.S. traffic for the first 44 weeks of 2020 was 20,684,809 carloads and intermodal units, a decrease of 9.3 percent compared to last year.

More data from AAR can be found here.