While the third quarter of 2016, marked the second straight quarter total intermodal volumes declined on the heels of 25 consecutive quarters of growth, the fourth quarter returned to growth mode, albeit barely, according to data in the 2016 Fourth Quarter and Year-End Report issued this week by the Intermodal Association of North America (IANA).Total fourth quarter intermodal volume movements-at 4,354,119-were up 1.0 percent annually, following decreases of 4.6 percent and 6.1 percent in the second and third quarters, respectively.Domestic containers again paced all intermodal categories tracked by IANA in the fourth quarter, up 3.4 percent annually at 1,898013, while trailers continued their ongoing decline, falling 9.2 percent to 331,964. All domestic equipment was off 1.3 percent at 2,229,977. International, or ISO, containers, eked out a 0.6 percent increase at 2,124,142.IANA said that while domestic containers were at the same pace they have been during the previous two quarters, trailers continued to head down, albeit at a slower pace than the prior four quarters, which it said pulled down over all intermodal growth. And ISO marked its first increase after two quarters of declining volumes, with the 0.6 percent increase matching up with the 0.6 percent decrease seen during the fourth quarter of 2015.What’s more, it added that 2016 marked a “historic change in the relationship between imports and international intermodal loadings, with U.S. container imports heading up 3.7 percent, while international loadings were down 3.2 percent, whereas over the previous five years imports and international were both up, with U.S intermodal loadings increasing at roughly half the pace of imports.For all of 2016, IANA reported that total volume was down 2.1 percent compared to 2015 at 17,130,914. Domestic containers were the lone category to see annual growth, up 4.0 percent at 7,361,907, and trailers dropped 22.6 percent to 1,228,279. All domestic equipment was off 0.8 percent at 8,589,376, and ISO containers fell 3.3 percent to 8,541,538.IANA President and CEO Joni Casey said in an interview that this discrepancy is primarily due to the increase in transloading, especially in the Southwest along with a soft over the road market resulting in highway capacity also being a factor.“International intermodal shipments started to turn positive the last two months of 2016, averaging gains of 4 percent for each month,” she said. “In order to continue this trend, the US economy needs to keep improving, inventory re-stocking needs to continue, which in turn will drive increased imports.”As for the path domestic containers may take in 2017, Casey said that expectations are for more consistent volume growth throughout the year. “Month-to-month fluctuations during 2016 were more prevalent than in previous years, making it difficult to predict overall intermodal increases,” she said.On the regulatory front, in terms of specific policy changes that have the potential to impact the intermodal sector, Casey pointed to things like the Electronic Logging Devices for Class 8 trucks, which is set to take effect in December, and Positive Train Control on the rails, which will kick in starting in December 2018.“Certainly, more restrictive trade policies could impact international intermodal volumes,” she noted. “Any issues that affect OTR capacity, such as ELDs, are expected to yield increases in domestic intermodal shipments in the latter half of the year. Also, a freight infrastructure investment policy that increases the amount of project funding would be a benefit.”