Monday, October 11, 2010

Rail Intermodal Traffic at 2008 levels, Carload Traffic Lags

by Bill McBride on 10/11/2010 06:06:00 PM

From the Association of American Railroads: Rail Time Indicators. The AAR reports carload traffic in September 2010 was up 7.7% compared to September 2009 - and carload traffic was 7.5% lower than in September 2008. Intermodal traffic (using intermodal or shipping containers) is up up 17.3% over September 2009 and up 0.2% over September 2008.

Rail Traffic Click on graph for larger image in new window.

This graph shows U.S. average weekly rail carloads (NSA). Traffic increased in 16 of 19 major commodity categories year-over-year.

From AAR:

• U.S. freight railroads originated 1,487,511 carloads in September 2010, an average of 297,502 carloads per week. That’s up 7.7% from September 2009 and down 7.5% from September 2008 on a non-seasonally adjusted basis. It’s also the highest weekly average for any month since October 2008.

• Average unadjusted weekly carloads are typically lower in September than in August because of the Labor Day holiday. This year, though, September’s weekly unadjusted average (297,502) was higher than August’s (294,862). Why? The week with Labor Day was, as usual, one of the lowest-volume weeks of the year, but the other four weeks in September 2010 were all among the six highest-volume weeks of the year. The top two weeks so far in 2010 were in September.

• That explains why seasonally adjusted U.S. rail carloads were up 1.9% in September 2010 over August 2010, reaching their highest level since November 2008.
As the graph above shows, rail carload traffic collapsed in November 2008, and now, a year into the recovery, carload traffic has only recovered half way. However ...

Rail Traffic
• U.S. railroads originated 1,165,288 intermodal trailers and containers in September 2010, an average of 233,058 per week on an unadjusted basis. That’s down slightly from August 2010, but that’s just due to Labor Day. The four non-Labor Day weeks in September were four of the top five intermodal weeks so far in 2010. September 2010 intermodal traffic was up 17.3% over September 2009 and up 0.2% over September 2008.

• On an unadjusted basis, September is traditionally the second (sometimes third) highest-volume month of the year for intermodal, behind October. Intermodal peaks in the fall as retailers stock up for the holidays.
excerpts with permission
The increase in intermodal traffic, along with the increase in West Coast port import traffic, are two of the indicators that suggest retailers might have over-ordered for the holidays. Stephanie Clifford and Catherine Rampell mentioned this possibility in the NY Times article last week: Dim Outlook for Holiday Jobs
While retailers are just now making plans for Christmas hiring, they had to make plans for Christmas merchandise months ago, and that lag might create some inventory problems.

In the first part of the year, the economic picture looked much brighter. ... That was at about the same time that retailers had to order holiday merchandise because of the time it takes to produce and ship the inventory.

And recent traffic at the nation’s ports suggests that retailers made optimistic bets.