KANSAS CITY, MISSOURI, US — Grain shipments by rail and barge continued to be robust in the latest reports issued by the American Association of Railroads and US Department of Transportation.
Grain brokers, traders, merchandisers and millers continued to report slow car placement by Class 1 railroads. That situation mostly covered winter wheat areas, and was felt most heavily in the central and southern US Plains. Shippers in the area said empty rail car placement at origins were two weeks to 40 days behind. In recognition of potential bumper crops of wheat, corn and soybeans, Union Pacific railroad in mid-May met with select grain company leaders to communicate plans. Details of that meeting were scant.
On May 17, the Tennessee Department of Transportation announced it had awarded a contract for the emergency repair of the Hernando DeSoto Bridge to Kiewit Infrastructure Group. The bridge spans the Mississippi River from Tennessee to Arkansas. TDOT said the work would be completed in two phases beginning as early as May 19, and that both phases would be completed before the bridge could be reopened.
The bridge was shut down May 11 after a crack was discovered during a routine inspection. The crack was present since at least 2019, TDOT said.
Waterway restrictions implemented immediately by the Coast Guard restricted vessel traffic from mile marker 736 to mile marker 737 on the Mississippi River. By May 14 when the restrictions were lifted, there were 62 vessels and 1,058 barges in the queue, according to the Coast Guard.
Meanwhile over-the-road truckers were having to take alternate routes, taking an eight-minute drive to an average of 84 minutes at a daily cost to the trucking industry of $2.4 million per day, according to the American Transportation Research Institute.
“Freight is like water,” said Shannon Newton, president of the Arkansas Trucking Association. “It will continue to flow. Our industry will continue to make deliveries. But if the additional expense is prolonged, it is likely to be passed on to consumers.”
The Bureau of Transportation Statistics said, “The I-40 bridge and nearby I-55 bridge carry goods between East Coast and the Southwest and between the Upper Midwest and the Gulf Coast. East-west truck traffic diverted from the I-40 bridge is now mixing with north-south truck traffic on the I-55 bridge. An example of the many freight flows over the I-55 are shipments by truck between Chicago and St. Louis metropolitan areas to the north and Baton Rouge and New Orleans to the south.”
US weekly rail traffic in the week ended May 8 totaled 523,309 carloads and intermodal units, up 27% compared with the same week in 2020, according to the Association of American Railroads (AAR) in its latest weekly rail traffic data report. Total carloads for the week were 236,019 carloads, up 28% compared with the same week a year ago. US weekly intermodal volume totaled 287,290 containers and trailers, up 26% compared to 2020.
The week’s traffic brought the 2021 cumulative carloads total to 4,098,956 carloads, up from the same period in 2020; and 5,080,788 intermodal units, up 18% from last year. Total combined US traffic for the first 18 weeks of 2021 was 9,179,744 carloads and intermodal units, an 11% increase compared to last year.
Each of the 10 carload commodity groups posted a year-over-year increase in the latest reported week. Grain carloads totaled 25,211 for the week, a 17% increase over the same week in 2020, bringing 2021 cumulative grain carloads to 458,495 for an average of 25,472 per week, a 24% increase over the same period in 2020.
Canadian railroads reported 75,952 carloads for the week, up 12%, and 77,487 intermodal units, also up 12% compared with the same week a year earlier, the AAR said. Cumulative Canadian rail traffic volume in the first 18 weeks of 2021 totaled 2,727,941 carloads, containers and trailers, up 8%. Canadian grain carloads in the week ended May 8 totaled 10,763, up 12% from the same week in 2020, which brought the 2021 cumulative total to 188,195 for an average of 10,455 per week, up 29% from the same period in 2020.
Mexican railroads reported 20,442 carloads for the week, up 34% compared with the same week last year, and 15,688 intermodal units, up 13%, the AAR said. Cumulative volume on Mexican railroads for the first 18 weeks of 2021 was 656,876 carloads and intermodal containers and trailers, up 5% from the same point last year. Mexican grain carloads in the latest week totaled 1,792, down 34% from the same week a year earlier, bringing 2021 cumulative grain carloads to 34,023 for an average of 1,890, down 14% from the same period in 2020.
North American rail volume for the week ended May 8 on 12 reporting US, Canadian and Mexican railroads totaled 332,413 carloads, up 24% compared with the same week in 2020, and 380,465 intermodal units, up 23% compared with last year, the AAR said. Total combined weekly rail traffic in North America was 712,878 carloads and intermodal units, up 23%. North American rail volume for the first 18 weeks of 2021 was 12,564,561 carloads and intermodal units, up 10% compared with 2020. North American gain carloads in the week totaled 37,766, up 11% from the same week in 2020, brining 2021 cumulative carloads to 680,713 for a weekly average of 37,817, up 22% from the same period in 2020. Food/farm products excluding grain was the only category to post a year-over-year decline in the week.
Year-to-date total barged grain movements reached a record-high 14.5 million tons in the week ended May 8, up 47% from the same period in 2020, 33% higher than the recent five-year average, and 38% higher than the recent 10-year average, according to the US Department of Agriculture in its weekly Grain Transportation Report.
“The exceptionally high year-to-date tonnage mostly reflects a high demand for corn exports,” the USDA said. “At 10.4 million tons, year-to-date total barged corn movements also set a record. This total was 98% higher than last year, 65% higher than the recent five-year average, and 77% higher than the 10-year average. A couple of factors contributed to the high grain and corn totals: First, water conditions that had complicated barge logistics earlier this year have substantially improved. Second, the Asian market, especially China, has shown a continuously strong demand for imported grain.”
In the week ended May 8, barge grain movements totaled 1,004,586 tons, up 50% from the previous week and up 18% from the same week a year earlier, according to the US Army Corps of Engineers. In the same week, 633 grain barges moved down river, 195 more barges than the previous week. There were 765 grain barges unloaded in New Orleans, 5% fewer than in the previous week.
Ocean freight activity
In the week ended May 6, 30 oceangoing grain vessels were loaded in the Gulf, 9% fewer than the same week a year earlier, the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service said. In the 10 days starting May 7, 51 vessels were expected to be loaded, a 2% increase over the same period in 2020. As of May 6, the rate for shipping one tonne of grain from the US Gulf to Japan was $65, up 3% from the previous week. The rate to ship a tonne of grain from the Pacific Northwest to Japan was $38, up 4% from the previous week.
In the week ended May 10, the U.S. average diesel fuel price was $3.186 per gallon, up 4.4¢ from the previous week, and up 79.2¢ above the same week in 2020, the US Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration said.
The average on-highway diesel fuel price by region in the week ended May 10, with change from the previous week in dollars per gallon was:
East Coast $3.160 +0.068
New England $3.115 +0.037
Central Atlantic $3.336 +0.059
Lower Atlantic $3.051 +0.079
Midwest $3.130 +0.067
Gulf Coast $2.968 +0.061
Rocky Mountain $3.307 +0.054
West Coast $3.692 +0.043
West Coast less California $3.313 +0.070
California $4.008 +0.021