Surging international cargoes were the biggest driver in the second quarter for rail hauls of intermodal containers and trailers, said the Intermodal Association of North America. Combined traffic jumped 17.2 percent from the same period in 2009 to 3.317 million units, IANA said, led by a 20.9 percent increase for containers designed for international service while domestic equipment moves grew 13.2 percent.
That meant railroad hauls of marine boxes -- 20-ft., 40-ft. and 45-ft. containers - grew to 1.783 million units in the April-June period this year, compared with 1.534 million domestic containers and trailers that are usually 53-ft. or 48-ft. sizes.
By The Numbers: U.S. Intermodal Container Traffic.
The domestic box moves reflect a moderate U.S. economic recovery and what rail officials say is a continued modal share shift from all-highway shipments to rail intermodal. However, the gain for international equipment was even greater, as rebounding global trade flows have activated more container ships in recent months to move U.S. imported goods, and as U.S. exports have climbed as well.
Industry sources also say an undetermined number of containerized import cargoes are being transloaded at U.S. port areas into 53-ft. domestic containers and trailers before placement on railcars so that the marine boxes can quickly head back overseas. That process then counts the rail originations as domestic equipment rather international.
Industry officials dispute how much transloading is taking place, with some saying its overall volume remains small while others say it has become a significant part of North American freight flows.
IANA said domestic intermodal container moves for the quarter rose 16.2 percent to 1.128 million, so that both overall domestic loadings and domestic container moves were at new record high levels. Intermodal shipments by truck trailers rose 5 percent from a year earlier to 406,080 units, an aberration from that category's long-term decline.
Trucking sources say some shippers are opting to load intermodal freight into trailers with their built-in chassis instead of using stackable containers, because in the current tight equipment market the separate chassis units for containers may not be available when trucks need to move the boxes to and from a rail terminal. IANA said the trailer numbers "are expected to continue their long-term downward trend later this year."
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