Oct 12, 2020 - Economy & Business

Rail shipping is improving but still lags 2019

Data: Association of American Railroads; Table: Axios Visuals
Data: Association of American Railroads; Table: Axios Visuals

The latest report from the Association of American Railroads showed the slow recovery in rail shipping in September.

What's happening: While the report notes that rail volume overall continues to be down from 2019, one bright spot is intermodal shipping, or the transport of finished products and raw materials.

  • U.S. intermodal originations in September were the fourth most for any month in history and up 7.1% over September 2019. Intermodal traffic rose 2.9% in the third quarter, after a 12.6% decline in Q2.
  • Recent intermodal gains are largely thanks to a surge in imports, especially from Asia, as firms restock inventories and retailers prepare for the early start of the holiday shopping season.

Yes, but: Average weekly carloads are still down significantly from 2019's pace in the U.S. and Canada, with total carloads in September down 9.7% from last year. That’s still a sizable decline, but is the smallest since March.

  • Excluding coal, U.S. rail carloads were down 2.9% in September year over year, following declines of 9.9% in August, 12.7% in July, and 17.4% in June.

What they're saying: "Think of the economy as an apple tree. Picking the fruit off the lowest branches is easy; picking the fruit off the highest branches can be done, but it’s much harder. Right now, lots of higher-up apples remain."

Air shipments also show slow recovery.

Shipping by sea is showing a similar slow-but-steady recovery, as the apparel industry is "emerging from the worst of COVID-19 with radically changed supply trends," per S&P Global Market Intelligence's Panjiva.

  • Total U.S. seaborne imports of apparel, footwear and textiles increased by 0.8% year over year in September, the first increase in a year, thanks entirely to textile shipments.

By the numbers: Shipments of apparel and footwear were down by 1.6% and 17.0%, respectively, while textile shipments jumped by 18.9%.

  • ​​​​​For Q3 overall the apparel sector’s shipments were down by 4.2% year over year.
  • Shipments of athleisure products rose 3% year over year in Q3 while formalwear declined by 17.6%.
  • Uncertainties about returning to school may have kept a lid on shipments of kids' clothes, which fell by 18.1% compared to non-kids' clothes, which declined by 13.0%.
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