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IANA data points to declining volume in October

October intermodal volumes mostly saw annual declines, according to data provided to LM by the Intermodal Association of North America (IANA).

Total October volume—at 1,552,029 units—was down 0.8% annually. Trailers—at 68,747—fell 30.1%, for the steepest decline, and topping September’s 28.6% annual decline. Domestic containers—at 700,512—were down 0.9%. And all domestic equipment, which is comprised of trailers and domestic containers, fell 4.4%, to 769,259. ISO, or international containers, were the lone segment to see an annual gain, rising 3.2%, to 752,770.

Through the first 10 months of 2022, IANA reported that total intermodal volume—at 15,001,169—is down 3.7% compared to the same period a year ago. Trailers—at 777,634—decreased 22.6%, and domestic containers—at 6,857,990—were up 3.1%. All domestic equipment—at 7,635,624—fell 0.3%. ISO containers were down 7.0%, to 7,365,545.

In its recently issued “Intermodal Quarterly Report,” IANA observed that total third quarter intermodal volume—at 4,535,835 units—fell 1.0% annually. A bulk of the decline was due to a 27.7% annual decline, for the trailers segment, to 209,061, its lowest level on record. Domestic containers—at 2,012,662—saw a 1.5% annual increase, and all domestic equipment (comprised of trailers and domestic containers)—at 2,221,723—saw a 2.2% annual decline. ISO, or international, containers eked out a 0.1% annual increase, to 2,314,112.

The 1.0% third quarter annual decrease was preceded by a 9.8% fourth quarter 2021 annual decline, a 6.6% first quarter decline, and a 4.3% second quarter decline. The report explained that with the annual decrease down roughly 48,000 units, it “represents less than one day’s volume,” adding that “external factors impacting intermodal traffic were a potential rail strike and Hurricane Ian.”

While intermodal volumes were down annually for the fifth consecutive quarter, IANA noted that it represented the smallest decline over that period.

“Intermodal volume surged after the worse of the pandemic in the third quarter of 2020 with strong network throughput supporting increased consumer demand for goods,” the report observed. “The growth overwhelmed the intermodal supply chain, and volume began to drop during the third quarter of 2021. Weaker volumes have been experienced ever since.”

IANA President & CEO Joni Casey told LM that based on third quarter volumes, it certainly seems as if capacity and fluidity are returning to the intermodal network.

“Quarterly volumes are still relatively muted, so it’s hard to tell if this will become the new norm especially given the lack of definitive peak season numbers,” she said.

With ISO containers topping domestic container volumes in the third quarter, Casey explained that is indicative of how intermodal volumes are very dependent on imports.

“As conditions at the ports and marine terminals improve, and, assuming that the dollar stays higher, international traffic should continue to increase,” she said. “Transloading can offset international gains to some extent, but this segment typically is higher than domestic moves.”

And with many retailers indicating inventory levels for the holidays are where they need to be she said that existing inventory levels may impact international volumes, but the year-over-year comparisons still support growth in Q4 and Q1.  But she said that comes with a caveat, in that it is becoming harder to predict however, given externalities such as global inflation and possible recession, and the impacts of the Ukrainian war.

Looking at trailer volume, Casey observed that the trend away from trailers towards domestic containers is likely irreversible.

“However, we may see instances when intermodal trailer use spikes based on equipment shortages and increases in e-commerce as we have in the past,” she pointed out.

Larry Gross, president of Gross Transportation Consulting, previously told LM that the international situation reflects capacity limitations as substantial volumes of freight remain floating off of U.S. ports awaiting unloading and subsequent inland movement.

“But the domestic situation appears to be more demand-based, as substantial capacity has been added to the system in the form of new private domestic containers,” he said. “However, lack of supporting chassis has also been a constraint.”

About the Author

Jeff Berman, Group News Editor

Jeff Berman is Group News Editor for Logistics Management, Modern Materials Handling, and Supply Chain Management Review. Jeff works and lives in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, where he covers all aspects of the supply chain, logistics, freight transportation, and materials handling sectors on a daily basis. Contact Jeff Berman

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