U.S. Rail Traffic Fell 7.2% in 2020

The tally for 2020 is now complete.

U.S. railroad hauled 25,157,476 carloads and intermodal units last year, a decline of 7.2 percent compared to 2019.

The Association of American Railroads said carload traffic for the year was 11,482,059 units, down 12.9 percent. The railroad s hauled 13,675,417 containers and trailers, a decline of 1.8 percent.

Most of the decline has been attributed to an economic downturn prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic, but not all of it.

AAR Senior Vice President John Gray said in a statement that before the pandemic deepened last March, railroads were on “less than ideal footing” due to a weakened manufacturing sector and lower port activity caused by trade disputes.

Despite enjoying near-record traffic declines during the early months of 2020, U.S. railroads rallied to close the year with volume close to pre-pandemic levels.

Gray said that was due to sharply higher grain and intermodal shipments, along with the reopening of auto assembly plants.

“It’s no surprise that rail volumes were down for the year overall, but railroads are looking to the future,” Gray said.

“Their experience in 2020 along with huge ongoing network investments have made the industry more adaptable and better able to adjust to the demands of a wide range of operational and market conditions. Railroads are well prepared to help our economy grow in 2021.”

AAR said that during December U.S. railroads hauled 2,435,819 carloads and intermodal units, a 4.4 percent increase compared with December 2019.

Total carloads fell 3.7 percent to 1,101,324 units during the month, while intermodal volume rose 12.2 percent to 1,334,495 containers and trailers.

Ten of the 20 carload commodity categories tracked by AAR each month saw carload gains in December.

These included grain, up 27.9 percent; chemicals, up 3.7 percent; and iron and steel scrap, up 12.9 percent.

Posting declines were coal, down 14.5 percent; crushed stone, sand and gravel, down 14.8 percent; and petroleum and petroleum products, down 15.8 percent.

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