U.S. rail volumes last week slipped from the prior week, although they’re up by double-digit percentage points year-over-year, according to data from the Association of American Railroads (AAR).

Weekly U.S. rail traffic was 523,309 carloads and intermodal units for the week ending last Saturday, down 3.2% from the prior week but up 26.9% from the same period in 2020.

U.S. rail carload volume (excludes intermodal units) is well above 2020 levels, but remains below 2019 and 2018 mid-May levels. (Source: SONAR)
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The near 27% gain year-over-year is partly because rail volumes dropped significantly last May at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in North America.

Both carloads and intermodal units were down sequentially. Carloads slipped 2% from the prior week to 236,019 carloads, although they were 27.6% higher year-over-year. Intermodal units fell 4.2% to 287,290 containers and trailers, but they were up by 26.3% from the same period a week ago.

Meanwhile, year-to-date U.S. rail volumes are 11.3% higher at 9.18 million carloads and intermodal units. 

The 2021 rail traffic strength has been largely driven by intermodal containers, which hit records in April, defying typical seasonality. (Source: SONAR)

March was a record month for US ports: NRF

Industry observers anticipate that intermodal volumes will remain strong through 2021 amid a strengthening U.S. economy and elevated e-commerce activity. That boost in e-commerce activity also helped grow U.S. import levels this spring.

“Despite the continuing pandemic, most consumers are in good financial health and aren’t hesitating to spend,” said Jonathan Gold, vice president for supply chain and customs policy for the National Retail Federation (NRF). “More spending translates into more merchandise arriving at our ports as retailers continue to meet increasing demand. The cargo surge that began last fall doesn’t show any sign of stopping. Unfortunately, disruption and congestion issues are also continuing.”

NRF anticipates record U.S. retail imports this spring to boost overall import levels for 2021 compared with 2020.

Indeed, according to its monthly Global Port Tracker produced by NRF and Hackett Associates, the major U.S. ports handled 2.27 million twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs) in March, which was up 21.2% from February. March’s volume also set a record for the number of containers seen during a single month since NRF began tracking imports in 2002, NRF said. The previous record, set in October 2020, was 2.21 million TEUs.

U.S. maritime import shipment volume passing through customs remains well above levels of recent years for this time of year. (Source: SONAR)

NRF noted that the year-over-year growth in March of 64.9% was inflated because many Asian factories had shut down because of the coronavirus pandemic while most U.S. stores were being ordered to close. 

Although April’s numbers aren’t available, NRF projects volumes at 2.17 million TEUs, while it forecasts May volumes at 2.22 million TEUs.

“Growth that fast is a clear indication that U.S. economic output has almost recovered to its level before the pandemic struck,” Hackett Associates founder Ben Hackett said. “Retail sales numbers show consumers are spending a large portion of their stimulus checks as well as savings that accumulated while staying home rather than going out and income from new jobs. This is turning out to be a year of super growth that will act as the driver of the global economy.”

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Related links:

Carload and intermodal traffic strong in April and Q1: AAR, IANA

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