Rail Trends 2021: An Unprecedented Year

2020 was a year like no other. The COVID-19 pandemic caused unprecedented impacts on human health, workers, businesses, and governments in Canada and around the world. But one thing did not change, and that was the perseverance of Canadian railways, which continued to deliver services to the industries, communities, and passengers that depend on them from coast to coast to coast. The freight railway sector showed its resilience, effectively managing the uncertainty and volatility presented by the COVID-19 pandemic. Railways operated efficiently under evolving restrictions, protecting employee health while delivering essentials such as energy products, personal protective equipment, medicines, vaccines, and agricultural and food products. On the passenger side, intercity and commuter railways kept trains running, providing transportation services to essential workers and Canadians that rely on them. Unfortunately, restrictions caused many tourism railways to cancel their 2020 operations altogether.

Railways provide a low-cost, low-emissions transportation option for shippers to get their products to market. In 2020, railway freight rates decreased by 1.9% to less than 5 cents per revenue ton-mile. Despite volatility in traffic volumes from month to month, as well as by commodity sector, in 2020, total freight volumes were only slightly lower than in 2019. And despite the elevated levels of uncertainty, Canadian railways continued to make significant capital investments to facilitate future growth. In 2020, railways invested $2.6 billion into their Canadian assets, which is the second highest level on record, behind $3.1B in 2019. RAC members also contributed $1.9 billion in various taxes to Canadian governments.

Improvements in safety, environmental, and economic performance all have one thing in common: they’re driven by innovation. Canada’s railways continue to innovate and invest in state- f-the-art technologies. In recent years, railways have leveraged big data and made significant advancements in automated inspections and predictive analytics to enhance safety. Investments in modern locomotives and operational improvements are driving fuel-efficiency, while an expanding suite of digital applications are supporting the growth of rail shippers.