March US rail volumes up 14% amid uneven year-over-year comparisons

Also, the National Retail Federation expects US import surge to continue through summer

U.S. rail volumes in March rose double digits percentage-wise, although some of the year-over-year gains may reflect uneven comparisons because of last year’s pandemic-induced volume downturn.

U.S. freight railroads originated nearly 2.59 million carload and intermodal units in March, up 14.2% from March 2020, according to the Association of American Railroads.

Of that total, U.S. intermodal traffic jumped 24% to 1.43 million containers and trailers. Meanwhile, U.S. carloads rose 4.1% to nearly 1.16 million. 

Total intermodal container volume originated on the U.S. railroads in 2021, 2020, 2019 and 2018 is shown in blue, yellow, green and orange, respectively. (SONAR FreightWaves) For more information on SONAR or to request a demo, click here.

Carload commodities that rose in March included grain, which climbed 22.1%, coal, up 7.6%; and motor vehicles and parts, up 16.3%. Declines came from chemicals, down 4.8%; petroleum and petroleum products, down 8.5%; and crushed stone, sand and gravel, down 4%. 

“When much of the economy shut down around this time last year, rail volumes plummeted too. We have to take that into account when comparing rail traffic this year to last year,” said AAR Senior Vice President John T. Gray. “That said, rail traffic has clearly rebounded from last year’s depths. Looking ahead, rail volumes are highly correlated with manufacturing output, so recent signs of strength in manufacturing are good signs for railroads too.”

On a weekly basis, U.S. rail traffic gained 20% to 515,562 carloads and intermodal units for the week ending last Saturday amid uneven year-over-year comparisons due to the arrival last spring of the COVID-19 pandemic. On a sequential basis, U.S. weekly rail volumes were down 1.2% over the prior week.

NRF: Expect import surge to continue

Despite some potential for uneven year-over-year comparisons, intermodal volumes could find continued strength from strong consumer demand and e-commerce. Indeed the National Retail Federation (NRF) said Wednesday that the surge of imports at retail container ports that began last summer could persist through the end of this summer.

“We’ve never seen imports at this high a level for such an extended period of time,” said Jonathan Gold, NRF vice president for supply chain and customs policy. The group, along with Hacketts Associates, released its monthly global port tracker.

Maritime import shipments are shown for 2021, 2020, 2019 and 2018, in blue, green, orange and purple, respectively. (SONAR FreightWaves) For more information on SONAR or to request a demo, click here.

“Records have been broken multiple times and near-record numbers are happening almost every month. Between federal stimulus checks and money saved by staying home for the better part of a year, consumers have money in their pockets and they’re spending it with retailers as fast as retailers can stock their shelves,” Gold said.

NRF and Hacketts Associates project that U.S. import volume will remain at or above 2 million twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs) for 11 out of 13 months by this August. Before 2020, monthly imports had reached 2 million TEUs only once, in October 2018, NRF said.

The two estimate that U.S. ports handled 1.87 million TEUs in February, down 9.1% from January but up 23.7% from February 2020. 

March’s total is projected at 2.07 million TEUs, which would be a 50.7% increase year-over-year. However, March 2020 was also a period when U.S. businesses started to close to stave off the coronavirus, while many Asian factories were still shut down following the Lunar New Year holiday, NRF said. 

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Joanna Marsh

Joanna is a Washington, DC-based writer covering the freight railroad industry. She has worked for Argus Media as a contributing reporter for Argus Rail Business and as a market reporter for Argus Coal Daily.