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Despite challenges, intermodal volumes post 4.5 percent Q1 annual gain, reports IANA

Heading into 2015, the intermodal sector was faced with the same challenges it had exiting 2014, namely the West Coast port labor disruption and harsh winter weather. But even with these obstacles volumes still managed to show overall growth on an annual basis, according to the most recent edition of the Intermodal Market Trends & Statistics Report from the Intermodal Association of North America (IANA).

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Heading into 2015, the intermodal sector was faced with the same challenges it had exiting 2014, namely the West Coast port labor disruption and harsh winter weather. But even with these obstacles volumes still managed to show overall growth on an annual basis, according to the most recent edition of the Intermodal Market Trends & Statistics Report from the Intermodal Association of North America (IANA).

First quarter total volume—at 3,853,661 containers and trailers— was up 2 percent annually, IANA reported. Domestic containers—at 1,568,581—were up 6.5 percent, and international containers—at 1,883,031—were down 0.4 percent. All domestic equipment at 1,970,630—was up 4.5 percent, and trailers fell 2.7 percent to 402,049.

On a month-by-month basis for the first quarter, the report noted that intermodal volumes rose 2.3 percent in January, followed by a 4.2 percent drop off in February, due to port-related issues out West, but volumes closed out the quarter strong with a 7.4 percent uptick.

“Aggregate intermodal volumes were actually a little better than we expected, given the monthly international volume fluctuations and the downturn in trailer shipments,” IANA President and CEO Joni Casey said. “Domestic container movements were the driver to these results.”

The negative volumes on the international side in the first quarter had a negative impact on overall intermodal volumes, with volumes off 4.3 percent in February and international loads down 10.8 percent. A better March did not improve the overall international volume situation for the first quarter.

“Port congestion was the main cause of the weak performance of international performance in Q1,” the report explained. “These disruptions prevented containers from being off-loaded from ships and transferred to rail cars for significant parts of Q1.”

Even though the international situation was bleak for the first quarter, IANA said there are brighter signs ahead for various reasons, including the U.S. economy expanding at the same pace it has for the last five years, with imports getting a boost from the strong U.S. dollar that helped to make imports cheaper. 

Taking that a step further, Casey said that there are indications that international will maintain a good portion (in the 5-to-7 percent range) of the growth that started to occur in March. But she pointed out that the international March numbers were directly related to the pent-up surge as congestion finally started to unwind.

The volume gains on the domestic side were strong and impressive, IANA said, in light of the “difficulties faced by the container import sector.” It added that the majority of domestic containers transport domestically-produced freight only, with a decent amount of domestic containers moving freight transloaded from a 40-foot container that came in through a port.  And IANA also said that there is some evidence that weaker transload volumes caused domestic container growth to slow slightly, too.

Looking ahead, FTR Senior Consultant Larry Gross told LM he expects decent near-term intermodal growth, as the West Coast backlog continues to be worked off, but he cautioned there could be issues later in the year due to currently adequate truck capacity, particularly if service does not improve. 


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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