June rail traffic sees recovery ‘accelerate’

Covered hoppers passing through rail crossing

U.S. railroads’ total rail traffic was 14.3% lower year-over-year at 1,799,189 originations in the month of June according to the Association of American Railroads (AAR). Total carloads declined 22.4% year-over-year with intermodal container and trailer traffic moving only 6.6% lower.

“June was a month in which the slow recovery process that began in early May, began to accelerate. By the end of June, freight loadings had improved by about 60,000 carload and intermodal units weekly over where they had been in late April,” said AAR Senior Vice President John T. Gray.

Coal carloads were off more than 30% year-over-year in the month but auto shipments bounced back as production came online.

“After recording record lows in early May, coal finally stabilized at about 50,000 carloads per week by the end of June,” continued Gray. “Additionally, the reopening of automotive plants that began in early June has regrown that business from as little as 2,000 weekly loads to over 13,000 by the end of the month.”

Week 26

For the week ended June 27, week 26, total U.S. rail traffic fell 13.8% year-over-year, snapping a six-week streak of the year-over-year declines getting smaller. Last week, total U.S. rail traffic declined 12.9% year-over-year. Week 26 U.S. intermodal traffic was only 5.1% lower than the prior-year period.

Total carloads excluding intermodal traffic fell 22.9%. The largest year-over-year declines were recorded in metallic ores and metals (-36.9%), coal (-35.1%), motor vehicles and parts (-27.2%), non-metallic minerals (-22.2%) and petroleum and petroleum products (-21.5%).

The Canadian railroads reported total traffic declines of 15.1% year-over-year in week 26 with intermodal traffic down 8.8%.

“While all of these results are encouraging they will be much more robust if the current trend continues in the weeks following the July 4th holiday,” said Gray.

At the halfway point of 2020, U.S. carloads are 15.9% lower year-to-date compared to the first half of 2019. Total traffic is down 13.2% year-over-year with intermodal traffic off 10.6%.

Total U.S. Carloads (SONAR: RTOTC.USA)

Second quarter carloads at the publicly traded Class I railroads

Carloads at the publicly traded Class I railroads lost momentum in the last full week of the quarter. With most of second quarter 2020 in the books, COVID-19-related demand degradation across all carload types was evident in the period.

The three publicly traded U.S. railroads saw the largest year-over-year declines in auto and coal. Automotive carloads were down roughly 70% year-over-year at CSX (NASDAQ: CSX), Norfolk Southern (NYSE: NSC) and Union Pacific (NYSE: UNP) as vehicle production ceased in late-March, not resuming until mid-May. Secular headwinds for coal demand kept carloads depressed as well, with declines ranging from down 56% year-over-year at Norfolk Southern to down 26% at Union Pacific.

Quarter-to-date, second quarter carloads are down 20% year-over-year at CSX, down 26% at Norfolk Southern down, down 20% at Union Pacific and down 22% at Kansas City Southern (NYSE: KSU).

The Canadian railroads fared better in the second quarter with CN (NYSE: CNI) down 16% year-over-year and Canadian Pacific (NYSE: CP) down 12%. Similar headwinds related to the pandemic persisted at the Canadian railroads as broad-based declines were seen across all carload types. Agricultural carloads fared the best, up 4% at Canadian Pacific and down 2% at CN.

Second quarter intermodal traffic was off in the low double-digit to low-20% range year-over-year for the U.S. railroads and KSU and only off in the mid- to high-single-digit range for the Canadian railroads.

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