Year-to-date U.S. rail volumes slipped again the week ending Nov. 16 amid industry observations that the peak season this year was muted for rail.
U.S. rail traffic for the first 46 weeks of the year fell 4.5% to 23.8 million carloads, and intermodal units compared with the same period in 2018, according to the Association of American Railroads. Of that total, U.S. carloads slipped 4.4% to nearly 11.6 million carloads while U.S. intermodal units were down 4.6% to 12.2 million intermodal containers and trailers.
On a weekly basis, the U.S. rail operations of the Class I railroads originated 501,249 carloads and intermodal units, an 8.4% drop from the comparable week in 2018. Of that, U.S. carloads fell 8.9% to 239,647 carloads, while U.S. intermodal units slipped 7.9% to 261,602 intermodal units.
Rail volumes historically experience an uptick in the second half of the year because of peak season, which typically runs from between July and August to about October and November. During this time frame, freight volumes and freight rates can increase because of higher demand to move freight. This can come from the retail sector trying to secure goods ahead of the holiday season to grain producers needing to ship grain volumes to their domestic and international destinations.
However, in 2019, rail executives said at recent conferences sponsored by investment firms that the rail industry's fall peak was either nonexistent or likened to the size of a speed bump versus a peak.
"We're in the peak season and there's not a peak, so I guess it will be softer than muted, a speed bump kind of thing," said CSX (NASDAQ: CSX) CEO Jim Foote at a conference sponsored by investment firm Stephens on Nov. 13 in Nashville, Tennessee.
The cited causes for the lack of a peak season were similar to the reasons given for lower rail volumes this year. A weaker industrial economy, trade uncertainty between the U.S. and China and some trade restrictions levied by China for Canadian goods and a competitive truck market were some of the factors that executives gave for this year's muted peak season.
Mike Upchurch, chief financial officer for Kansas City Southern (NYSE: KSU), said the trade uncertainty is causing business to put projects on hold and that hesitation to invest is weighing on the industrial economy.
"I think you're going to need some resolution on trade before you see the industrial economy growing again," Upchurch said at the Stephens conference on Nov. 13.
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