AAR: August Rail Carloads down 14.9% YoY, Intermodal Up 3.0% YoY

From the Association of American Railroads (AAR) Rail Time Indicators. Graphs and excerpts reprinted with permission.

Does slow and steady really win the race? U.S. railroads might find out, because slow and steady (with a long way to go) generally describes the improvements in U.S. carload traffic in recent months.

Total U.S. rail carloads fell 14.9% in August 2020 from August 2019. their 19th straight year-over year decline. That’s not great, obviously, but it’s the smallest percentage decline since March 2020. … Intermodal, though, is doing great. … Relatively strong consumer spending on goods is helping intermodal.
emphasis added

Rail Traffic Click on graph for larger image.

This graph from the Rail Time Indicators report shows the six week average of U.S. Carloads in 2018, 2019 and 2020:

U.S. railroads originated an average of 224,557 total carloads per week in August 2020. That’s the lowest weekly average for total carloads for August since sometime before 1988, when our data begin. It’s also down 14.9% from August 2019. Still, there’s progress: August 2020 had the highest weekly average carloads and the smallest year-over-year percentage decline in five months.

In the first eight months of 2020, total carloads were down 16.0%, or 1.42 million carloads, from 2019.

Rail TrafficThe second graph shows the six week average of U.S. intermodal in 2018, 2019 and 2020: (using intermodal or shipping containers):

U.S. intermodal volume averaged 280,739 containers and trailers per week in August 2020 — the most since October 2018, the fifth most for any month in history, and up 3.0% over August 2019. The last time intermodal had a year-over-year monthly increase of any size was January 2019. … total U.S. consumer spending is still well below pre-pandemic levels, but spending on goods (as opposed to services) is actually above pre-pandemic levels. That’s sure to be helping rail intermodal volumes.

Note that rail traffic was weak prior to the pandemic.

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