Intermodal Hits Lowest Level Since 2003

Major U.S. railroads hauled fewer intermodal units in 2009 than any time since 2003, meaning the deep recession took six years of growth away from intermodal train traffic.

U.S. Class I railroads and some major regionals that report to the Association of American Railroads ended the year with 9,880,602 loadings of containers and trailers. That was down 14.1 percent from 11,499,978 for the corresponding 52 weeks in 2008, AAR said in its latest week's volume report.

AAR in a separate publication, Railroad Facts, reports that the last time those carriers picked up fewer than 10 million box loads was in 2003, when they had 9,955,605.

U.S. rail intermodal traffic peaked in 2006 with 12,282,221 loads, and then had a mild decline to 12,026,631 in 2007. But traffic fell sharply in 2008, when a yearlong slowdown was followed by plunging volume in the final quarter as the recession gained momentum.

In 2009, major U.S. lines saw their intermodal trailer volume fall 33.8 percent to 1,640,672 units, partly as major trucking suppliers including Schneider National shifted more of their business into 53-foot domestic containers from trailers.

By contrast, container loads that reflect domestic-only moves as well as the sharply retrenching ocean box business fell just 8.7 percent last year to 8,239,930.

Put another way, rail-hauled trailers and containers each shed about 800,000 loads in 2009, but because trailer volume is so much lower it fell by a much larger percentage.

- John D. Boyd.