Intermodal volumes began 2022 with across-the-board annual declines, according to data provided to LM by the Intermodal Association of North America (IANA).

Total January volume—at 1,385,613—decreased 13.3% annually. Trailers—at 91,135—were down 13.7% compared to January 2021, and domestic containers—at 654,729—slipped 2.6%. All domestic equipment, which is comprised of trailers and domestic containers, were down 4.1%, to 745,864. ISO, or international, containers—at 639,749—fell sharply, down 22.1%.

Earlier this year, IANA reported that fourth quarter and calendar year 2021 intermodal volumes were decidedly mixed, according to the most recent edition of its “Intermodal Quarterly.” 

For the fourth quarter, IANA reported that total intermodal volume, at 4,397,013 units, fell 9.8% annually. Trailers were down 10.9%, to 306,344, and domestic containers dropped 2.4%, to 2,076,790. All domestic equipment, at 2,383,134, saw a 3.6% annual decline, and ISO, or international, containers, sank 16.2%, to 2,013,879.

Total calendar year 2021 volume, at 18,435,249 units, was up 3.6% compared to 2020. Trailers rose 2.2%, to 1,212,748, and domestic containers increased 2.3%, to 8,021,252. All domestic equipment, at 9,234,000, was also up 2.3%. ISO containers rose 5.0%, to 9,201,249.

IANA observed that the 3.6% annual gain snapped a two-year stretch of declines, with 2021 being a year of two distinctly different halves, with volumes up 15.4% in the first half of the year and down 6.4% over the second half of the year. And it pointed out that while container imports were higher over the second half of the year, a combination of terminal congestion, severe weather, and labor shortages hindered overall throughput.

What’s more, IANA noted that the share of transloads was down, even though U.S. container imports grew 15.2% annually, due to shifts from traditional patterns.

“Stress on ports, the rail network, chassis supply, drayage capacity, and warehouse issues contributed to lower rail share,” IANA stated. “As flows and logistics patterns normalize, it should lead to better rail share.”

Looking at the fourth quarter, which was the lowest volume quarter of the last five quarters, IANA said that the 9.8% volume decline followed a 2.9% third quarter drop-off, adding that volumes improved over the first half of the year annually compared to the first half of 2020, when the pandemic had its largest impact.

“Freight volumes recovered in the second half of 2020 and those traffic levels created difficult comparisons for Q3 and Q4 of 2021,” said IANA. “Relative output decreased in Q4 of 2021.”

IANA President and CEO Joni Casey told LM that while total 2021 volume increased 3.6% annually, heading into the year, based on the traffic increases that started during the middle of 2020, IANA would have expected larger gains in year-end numbers. 

“But given external forces largely driven by the ongoing pandemic, such as terminal congestion, equipment shortages and dislocation, and continued labor challenges, it is an accomplishment for intermodal to end the year with volume increases,” she explained.

For 2022, IANA is forecasting total North American volumes to increase 2.9% annually, with domestic containers pegged at a 4.8% growth rate, and for trailer and ISO volumes to be down 5.0% and up 2.3%, respectively.

Casey noted that IANA expects issues experienced during Q3 and Q4 of 2021 – terminal capacity and congestion, driver and labor shortages, equipment misalignment, and adverse weather in some intermodal regions—to continue, to some extent, through the first half of 2022, with the 2.9% expected increase in volume to come to fruition, barring any additional stresses to the freight supply chain.

When asked about how much of a strain has the worker shortage and staffing issues have had on the intermodal sector, Casey said that it has played a role in all sectors of the economy and intermodal is no different as the effects of the pandemic caused widespread disruption in the supply chain workplace at intermodal facilities, at trucking companies and warehouses.

“As the business cycle hopefully settles into a new rhythm, the expectations are that staffing will return to an equilibrium as well,” she said.

As for how long the ongoing supply chain and global logistics challenges will remain intact, she cited the aforementioned congestion and capacity issues most likely continuing through mid-year as ongoing remedial initiatives are rolled out.

“But our crystal ball is cloudy as the far as the specifics of ‘when,’” she said. “It’s a global supply chain, and the virus is still in charge.”

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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