US rail volumes are still down year-to-date

A photograph of a train hauling intermodal containers.

Year-to-date U.S. rail volumes fell again for the week ending February 22, according to the Association of American Railroads (AAR).

U.S. freight railroads originated 3.86 million carloads and intermodal units for the first eight weeks of 2020, a 6.4% drop compared with the same period in 2019. Of that total. U.S. carloads year-to-date were down 6.5% to 1.86 million carloads, while U.S. intermodal units slipped 6.2% to nearly 2 million intermodal containers and trailers.

U.S. rail carloads over the last year are graphed in SONAR as the blue line (RTOTC.USA). Intermodal units are graphed on a relative basis to carloads. The orange line is intermodal trailers originated by the Class I railroads (RTOIT.CLASSI), and the green line is intermodal containers originated by the Class I railroads (RTOIC.CLASSI). Source: SONAR/AAR

The year-to-date decline in U.S. rail traffic comes amid uncertainty about how the North American rail volume will be affected by the coronavirus outbreak, which has slowed manufacturing output in China. Concerns that the virus has spread to other parts of the world also created unease in the financial markets this week, furthering macroeconomic uncertainties.

Meanwhile, rail employment data shows a continued decline in headcount totals. Data from both the Surface Transportation Board and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics show rail employment levels at their lowest in years.

U.S. rail employment sharply declined at the start of 2020, according to this SONAR chart. Source: SONAR (EMPN.RAIL) and U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

AAR also reports data on the Canadian freight railroads, where rail volumes on a weekly basis for intermodal units and certain carload commodities have dropped significantly from the same week in 2019 as Canadian National (NYSE: CNI) and, to a lesser extent, Canadian Pacific (NYSE: CP) grapple with protesters blocking portions of Canada’s freight rail network. The protesters, whose rail blockades forced the shutdown of Canadian National’s eastern operations, say their actions are in support of a First Nations group’s objections to the proposed route of fracked gas pipeline in northern British Columbia.

Canadian intermodal units were down 14.9% on a weekly basis to 56,299 intermodal containers and trailers, while carloads for metallic ores and minerals were down 9.5% to 14,644 units and carloads for nonmetallic minerals were down 8.6% to 6,023 units, according to AAR.

Source: AAR