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Weekly US intermodal volumes appear to be leveling off sequentially

Retail sales fuel U.S. import volumes, according to the National Retail Federation

U.S. intermodal volumes are higher year-over-year but have leveled off sequentially. (Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves)

U.S. intermodal traffic continues to boost overall rail volumes, although trailers have been leveling off on a sequential basis in recent weeks.

The U.S. freight railroads originated 293,746 intermodal containers and trailers for the week ending Saturday, up 10.3% from the same period in 2019, according to the Association of American Railroads (AAR).

But according to FreightWaves’ SONAR, which graphs data from AAR, intermodal trailers’ volumes have been trending lower in October than September, excluding Labor Day weekend.

AAR’s weekly releases show U.S. intermodal volumes peaking at 295,269 intermodal containers and trailers for the week ending Sept. 19. Intermodal traffic hasn’t been as high since then.

U.S. rail carloads (blue: RTOTC.USA), intermodal trailers (orange: RTOIT.CLASSI) and containers (green: RTOIC.CLASSI) over the past year. (FreightWaves SONAR)

Meanwhile, U.S. carloads volumes have been holding steady on a weekly basis, although traffic is still lower than year-ago levels. U.S. carloads totaled 228,282, down 8.4% from a year ago.

On a year-to-date basis, U.S. rail volumes totaled 21.2 million carloads and intermodal units, which is 9.1% lower than the same period in 2019.

Port import volumes up: National Retail Federation

Despite the leveling off of intermodal volumes in October versus September, intermodal traffic is still higher year-over-year amid booming e-commerce sales.

Indeed, the National Retail Federation (NRF) said Monday that imports in the third quarter totaled an estimated 8.1 million twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs), which is 6.1% higher than the third quarter of 2019 and beats the previous record of 7.7 million TEUs set in 2018.

The third quarter includes part of the peak season, which is when retailers seek to replenish their inventories ahead of the winter holiday season. 

NRF calculated that September imports among key U.S. ports were a record 2.11 million TEUs, which is 12.5% higher than September 2019 and 0.1% higher than the previous record of 2.1 million TEUs set in August of this year.

The retail trade group also estimates October imports at 2 million TEUs, which would be 6.5% higher than a year ago, and it forecasts November imports to be at 1.7 million TEUs.

However, even though the third quarter saw record imports, NRF expects 2020 imports to be down by about 3.4% to 20.9 million TEUs amid lower volumes earlier this year.

“Peak season is the Super Bowl of the supply chain world each year as retailers make sure they have enough merchandise on hand to satisfy demand during the holidays, and this is the busiest we’ve ever seen,” NRF Vice President for Supply Chain and Customs Policy Jonathan Gold said. 

“Part of this surge was fueled by restocking after retail sales rebounded this summer and part could be making sure there aren’t shortages if we see panic buying again. The economic challenges of the pandemic aren’t over yet, but this clearly shows how an industry that has been under stress is fighting back in a positive way. Retailers don’t import merchandise they don’t think they can sell, so this is a good sign for the holiday season,” Gold 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.