How Well Did U.S. Rail and Intermodal Freight Respond to the COVID-19 Pandemic versus the Great Recession?

Max T.M. Ng, Joseph Schofer, Hani S. Mahmassani*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


This paper analyzes and compares patterns of U.S. domestic rail freight volumes during and after the disruptions caused by the 2007–2009 Great Recession and the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. Trends in rail and intermodal (IM) shipment data are examined in conjunction with economic indicators, focusing on the extent of drop and recovery of freight volumes of various commodities and IM shipments, and the lead/lag time with respect to economic drivers. Impacts of the Great Recession and the rebound from it were slow to develop, whereas COVID-19 produced both profound disruptions in the freight market and rapid rebound, with important variations across commodity types. Demand for energy-related commodities (coal, petroleum, and fracking sand) dropped during the pandemic whereas demand for other commodities (grain products and lumber, and IM freight) rebounded rapidly and in some cases grew. Overall, rail freight experienced a rapid rebound following the precipitous drop in traffic in March and April, 2020, achieving a near-full recovery in 5 months. As the recovery proceeded through 2020, IM flow, containers moving by rail for their longest overland trips, rebounded strongly, some exceeding 2019 levels. In contrast, rail flows during the Great Recession changed slowly with the onset and recovery extending over multiple years. Pandemic response reflected the impacts of quick shutdowns and a rapid shift in consumer purchasing patterns. Results for the pandemic illustrate the resilience of the U.S. rail freight industry and the multifaceted role it plays in the overall logistics system. Amid a challenging logistic environment, freight rail kept goods moving when other methods of transport were constrained.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationTransportation Research Record
PublisherSAGE Publications Ltd
Number of pages14
StatePublished - Apr 2023


  • freight
  • freight rail transportation
  • freight systems
  • intermodal
  • intermodal freight transport
  • rail
  • railroads

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Civil and Structural Engineering
  • Mechanical Engineering


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