Intermodal Holds Near 2010 Peak

Intermodal Holds Near 2010 Peak

Intermodal traffic continued nearly at its peak volume of 2010 in the latest week on North America's major freight railroads.

Large U.S.-owned rail lines - the five U.S. Class I carriers plus a few regional and short line operators that report to the Association of American Railroads - originated 240,252 intermodal containers and trailer shipments in the week ending Oct. 2, the second-largest volume of the year following 241,167 units in the Sept. 25 week.

Counting a mild increase in shipments by the AAR's Mexican reporting lines and a scant decline for the Canadian-owned operators, the 300,328 loaded intermodal boxes that major North American railroads picked up last week stayed almost even with 300,350 they hauled the week before.

By The Numbers: U.S. Intermodal Container Traffic.

That suggests the late-summer intermodal surge continued all through September and that traffic levels continue to be strong as October gets under way. This is traditionally the peak month for intermodal loads of consumer goods headed to retail store shelves and warehouses, so they can be ready for yearend holiday sales.

The AAR said traffic for the Oct. 2 week was up 16.5 percent for U.S. carriers from the same period last year, when freight demand was picking up in the early months of an economic rebound from recession. It still trails the 2008 week by 1.9 percent, which was a period when that year's erupting credit crisis had not yet slashed freight volume.

So far, rail industry officials say they are continuing to draw domestic intermodal traffic away from truck competitors, which is partly reflected in intermodal trailer loads that must ride as single units on rail flatcars without the doublestack efficiencies that containers allow.

The AAR said the North American majors loaded 37,439 trailers in the Oct. 2 week for a 9.2 percent gain from the same point in 2009, while they picked up 262,889 containers that include both domestic and ocean borne cargoes for a 17.8 percent increase from a year ago.

Some of that container volume suggests that international traffic continues stronger than some had expected, since marine intermodal usually makes up more than half the total even though domestic container shipments keep rising.

Some observers just months ago predicted that the normal autumn peak for international shipments might not be very pronounced, after intermodal volume was brisk at many ports during the late springtime. However, after a slowdown in early summer, railroads' box shipments set new year-to-date and post-recession records repeatedly during August and September.

-- Contact John D. Boyd at jboyd@joc.com.