Surging fourth quarter intermodal volume helped make 2004 the best year ever for intermodal growth, according to Intermodal Market Trends & Statistics, a quarterly publication of the Intermodal Association of North America (IANA).
Fourth quarter 2004 (Q4 2004) results showed increased volume for the 11th straight quarter, while the full year's growth rate of 8.6% was one-third higher than 2003's 6.4% posting.
International containers lead quarterly equipment totals thanks to increasing imports, topping Q3 2004's solid 13.3% increase by nearly two percentage points. It should be noted that international containers tied their high growth mark set in Q1 2000, which is this category's highest level of growth since IANA began reporting intermodal statistics in 1996.
Overall, Q4 2004 trailer volume was its highest in five years, with 53-foot trailers once again setting the pace with a 23% gain, marking their 12th straight quarter of double-digit growth. Twenty-eight foot trailers rose 19%, partially due to continued LTL and parcel strength, while all other trailer sizes dropped sharply.
Domestic containers weakened from an already slow Q3 2004 increase, posting their lowest growth rate since IANA began reporting intermodal statistics in 1996. A number of factors seemed to drive domestic container weakness, including port congestion and port diversions that may have slowed transloading, tight domestic container supply, and possibly increasing lengths of haul.
With year-end volume even stronger than most industry watchers predicted, the industry rose to the occasion and coped well with record demand. While peak season is always challenging, the intermodal network handled this huge demand without any major service disruptions.
International equipment volume should continue to serve as the foundation for continued intermodal growth in 2005 and beyond. The slowdown of domestic intermodal growth in the last half of 2004 - particularly weak domestic container volume - adds an area of caution to the 2005 outlook.
Solid gains in seasonally-adjusted Q4 2004 domestic volume are encouraging, as is continued strength in trailers. Domestic demand for rail intermodal service should continue to grow in 2005. Even with a strong year-end finish, most forecasts still expect some moderation in intermodal growth this year.