Intermodal volumes begin 2021 with decent increases, reports IANA

January intermodal volumes picked up where December and calendar year 20202 left off, with decent gains, according to data provided to LM by the Intermodal Association of North America (IANA). 

Total January shipments—at 1,598,492—saw an 6.1% annual gain. Domestic containers—at 671,862—were up 8.1%, while trailers—at 105,611—were up 14.6%. All domestic equipment—at 777,473—was up 9.0%. ISO, or international, containers—at 821,019—saw a 3.5% increase.

The strong January intermodal output comes on the heels of IANA observed in the report that intermodal volumes saw declines over each of the improvements coming over the final four months of 2020, as monthly gains, for that period, ranged between 6.8% and 13.8%, driven by the trio of strong import volumes, e-commerce activity, and tight trucking capacity.

IANA previously reported that, for the fourth quarter of 2020, total volume—at 4,874,842—increased 9.6% annually, marking its biggest quarterly gain going back to the second quarter of 2014. And IANA noted that over the last four months of 2020, total intermodal volumes rose 9.4% compared to the same period in 2019, which, while strong, did not counter the 7.5% cumulative decline over the first eight months of 2020.

In a recent interview, IANA President and CEO Joni Casey explained that with 2020 being an irregular year, in terms of volume fluctuations and challenging market conditions, there was what she called a continued resiliency in service despite unavoidable issues based on unprecedented traffic volumes. And in terms of one of the biggest lessons learned as the intermodal sector went from minimal growth to a bustling end of the year, she said that: “One takeaway is the need for better communications across the supply chain to plan proactively for asset allocation and capacity management.”

And on the domestic front she said that domestic containers were the one market sector that was up for the year and is likely to continue based on the transloading of import volumes, at least through the first quarter of this year.

“Intermodal trailers picked up a percentage of the large number of e-commence shipments,” she said. “With consumer spending starting to slow, it’s uncertain whether this segment will continue to see the level of growth that it did the second half of 2020.”

While ISO container volume finished 2020 strongly, Casey said that unavoidable congestion has tempered the flow of intermodal volumes “downstream,” allowing accommodations to be made, when possible, to handle increasing amounts of freight, such as technologies allowing better visibility and terminal incentives.

When asked what the expectations are for 2021 intermodal volumes, Casey said things could go in a few different directions, depending on how things shake out.

“Import levels are expected to be strong thru Q1 of 2021, which will feed into domestic intermodal volumes,” she said. “There is also a potential upside for freight demand if another stimulus package is passed.  On the other hand, with more wide spread vaccinations, consumer spending could turn more towards services vs. purchases of items.”

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