Photo: Port Authority of New York and New Jersey

Photo: Port Authority of New York and New Jersey

Intermodal freight volumes returned to growth in the fourth quarter of 2016, posting a 1% year-over-year increase that tempered volume declines earlier the year, according to the Intermodal Association of North America.

The fourth-quarter improvement, which totaled 4.35 million shipments for the three months, was achieved despite lower overall freight volume and resulted in lower intermodal volume during the second and third quarters.

Shipment declines during those quarters led to a drop of 2.1% in total intermodal volumes for the year compared with 2015. The total of 17.1 million shipments was the first full-year decline since 2008.

"While full-year totals didn't meet our original expectations, we turned the corner in November and December," said Joni Casey, president and CEO of IANA.  "The 4% increase in domestic container volume during 2016 is a consistent and positive indicator of long term growth for the industry."

Domestic container gains were 3.4% in the fourth quarter and international shipments returned to growth for the period, increasing 0.6%. Declines continued in the trailer segment, which fell 9.2%.

The seven highest-density trade corridors, accounting for 63.3% of total intermodal volume, collectively were up 1.8% in the quarter, above the industry average of 1%.

The Midwest-Northwest and Northeast-Midwest lanes saw the largest fourth-quarter increases at 4.3% and 4.2%, respectively. Midwest-Southwest volumes, which were the highest, grew 1.4%. The South Central-Southwest lane, the only major lane to post a decline, fell 4.4% on container losses.

Intermodal service providers again demonstrated clear gains in the highway market sector. Thanks to excess trucking capacity and low fuel prices, highway volumes were up 37.3% from the same quarter the previous year. Intermodal loads fell 11.2%. The net result for reporting intermodal service was a total volume increase of 10%.