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US freight rail traffic slips nearly 3% in 2022

U.S. rail traffic in 2022 was generally lower than 2021 levels amid concerns about an economic recession and subpar rail service.

The U.S. operations of freight railroads handled about 25.4 million carloads and intermodal units in 2022, down 2.8% from 2021, according to data from the Association of American Railroads. Of that, U.S. carload traffic was flat to lower, slipping 0.3% to nearly 12 million carloads, while intermodal volumes fell 4.9% to about 13.4 million containers and trailers. The data represents 52 weeks in 2022.

For carloads, the five commodities with the biggest volumes in 2022 showed no consistent trend year over year. While coal volumes rose 2.7% to 3.4 million carloads and volumes for non-metallic minerals — which includes crushed stone, sand and gravel — increased 3.7% to 1.6 million carloads, chemicals volumes were roughly flat, at nearly 1.7 million carloads. Grain volumes slipped 4.2% to 1.1 million carloads and metallic ores and minerals volumes fell 6.6% to nearly 1.1 million carloads.

How much rail service disruptions factored into the drop in carloads in 2022 remains to be seen, especially since non-service-related factors, such U.S. grain harvest levels, high natural gas prices and inflation fears can contribute greatly to volume increases and decreases. However, the SONAR chart below shows 2022 carloads more closely aligned with carload volumes of 2020, minus pandemic-related volume dips between April and July 2020. In contrast, carload volumes in 2018 and 2019 were higher for much of the year.

This SONAR chart compares U.S. carload volumes in 2022 (in blue) with the last three years. The chart graphs AAR data. (Source: FreightWaves SONAR) To learn more about FreightWaves SONAR, click here.

“Rail markets are always evolving, and 2022 was no exception,” AAR Senior Vice President John T. Gray said in a Wednesday news release. “Coal carloads grew solidly in 2022 largely because higher natural gas prices made coal-fired electricity generation more competitive. However, those same higher natural gas prices, along with other market disruptors, hurt rail chemical volumes, since natural gas is a key raw material for chemical manufacturing. 

“Grain carloads in 2022 were slightly higher than the annual average over the past decade, but they were down year-over-year because 2021 was the best year for grain carloads since 2008. Intermodal volume in 2022 was the sixth best ever, but down from an even stronger 2021,” Gray continued.

While intermodal volumes in 2022 were noticeably lower than 2021 levels, they were more in line with recent years, according to the SONAR chart below. Intermodal volumes in 2021 were elevated as consumers continued their online buying habits spurred on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

This SONAR chart compares 2022 intermodal container volumes (in blue) with the last three years. (FreightWaves SONAR)

AAR also reported that December rail traffic was down 4.8% to 1.7 million carloads and intermodal units, with U.S. carloads slipping 4.4% to 842,171 carloads and U.S. intermodal units falling 5.2% to 900,213 containers and trailers. 

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Click here for more FreightWaves articles by Joanna Marsh.