U.S. Freight Traffic Continued to Swoon in February

Railroad freight traffic was down in February, the Association of American Railroads said this week.

U.S. railroads originated 927,084 carloads last month, a decline of 7.3 percent or 73,058 carloads compared with February 2019.

The carriers originated 997,683 containers and trailers last month, which was down 8.9 percent or 96,897 units.

Combined U.S. carload and intermodal originations in February were 1,924,767, down 8.1 percent, or 169,955 carloads and intermodal units compared with February 2019.

“Total U.S. rail carloads in February were down 7.3 percent driven almost entirely by coal. Excluding coal, carloads in February were down just 0.8 percent, their best showing in a year,” said AAR Senior Vice President John Gray. “In February, 10 of the 20 commodity categories we track saw year-over-year carload gains, the most in more than a year.”

Ten of the 20 carload commodity categories tracked by the AAR each month saw carload gains compared with February 2019.

These included: chemicals, up 3,718 carloads or 2.9 percent; petroleum and petroleum products, up 3,488 carloads or 7.2 percent; and all other carloads, up 2,875 carloads or 12 percent. Commodities that saw declines included: coal, down 67,770 carloads or 21.1 percent; crushed stone, sand and gravel, down 10,557 carloads or 12.5 percent; and grain, down 5,350 carloads or 6.4 percent.

“There’s a huge amount of uncertainty regarding the coronavirus situation, but to date the impact on U.S. rail traffic appears limited,” Gray said in a statement.

“That could change if, for example, sharp declines projected by U.S. ports occur in the weeks ahead. Supply chain disruptions related directly or indirectly to the coronavirus may have played some unquantifiable role in the decline in U.S. intermodal volumes in February, but intermodal has been falling for more than a year.

Gray said the headwinds facing railroads that pre-date the virus include lingering trade impacts and economic uncertainty; severe winter weather in parts of the country; and blockades in Canada that shut down rail traffic there.

Excluding coal, carloads were down 5,288 carloads, or 0.8 percent, in February 2020 from February 2019. Excluding coal and grain, carloads were up 62 carloads.

Total U.S. carload traffic for the first two months of 2020 was 2,092,817 carloads, down 6.5 percent, or 146,168 carloads, from the same period last year; and 2,242,763 intermodal units, down 7 percent, or 167,978 containers and trailers, from last year.

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