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posted on 16 February 2018

Rail Week Ending 10 February 2018: Signals Remain Mixed

Week 6 of 2018 shows same week total rail traffic (from same week one year ago) improved according to the Association of American Railroads (AAR) traffic data. The rolling averages remain mixed.

Analyst Opinion of the Rail Data

We review this data set to understand the economy. If coal and grain are removed from the analysis for carloads, this week it expanded 2.6 %. We primarily use rolling averages the analyze the data due to weekly volatility.

Intermodal transport growth remains strong year-over-year.

The following graph compares the four week moving averages for the rail economically intuitive sectors (red line) vs. total movements (blue line):

This analysis is looking for clues in the rail data to show the direction of economic activity - and is not necessarily looking for clues of profitability of the railroads. The weekly data is fairly noisy, and the best way to view it is to look at the rolling averages (carloads [including coal and grain] and intermodal combined).

Percent current rolling average is larger than the rolling average of one year ago Current quantities accelerating or decelerating Current rolling average accelerating or decelerating compared to the rolling average one year ago
4 week rolling average -0.5 % accelerating accelerating
13 week rolling average +1.3 % decelerating decelerating
52 week rolling average +3.1 % unchanged decelerating

A summary of the data from the AAR:

For this week, total U.S. weekly rail traffic was 519,545 carloads and intermodal units, up 1.6 percent compared with the same week last year.

Total carloads for the week ending February 10 were 251,058 carloads, down 0.5 percent compared with the same week in 2017, while U.S. weekly intermodal volume was 268,487 containers and trailers, up 3.7 percent compared to 2017.

Seven of the 10 carload commodity groups posted an increase compared with the same week in 2017. They included nonmetallic minerals, up 2,046 carloads, to 31,551; chemicals, up 1,224 carloads, to 31,782; and metallic ores and metals, up 1,010 carloads, to 20,396. Commodity groups that posted decreases compared with the same week in 2017 were coal, down 3,729 carloads, to 85,591; motor vehicles and parts, down 1,980 carloads, to 16,693; and grain, down 1,442 carloads, to 19,035.

For the first six weeks of 2018, U.S. railroads reported cumulative volume of 1,468,463 carloads, down 2.9 percent from the same point last year; and 1,578,628 intermodal units, up 3.5 percent from last year. Total combined U.S. traffic for the first six weeks of 2018 was 3,047,091 carloads and intermodal units, an increase of 0.3 percent compared to last year.

Coal is over 1/3 of the total railcar count, and this week the EIA says coal production is 6.6 % lower than the production estimate in the comparable week in 2017.

The middle row in the table below removes coal and grain from the changes in the railcar counts as neither of these commodities is economically intuitive.

This Week Carloads Intermodal Total
This week Year-over-Year -0.5 % +3.7 % +1.6 %
Ignoring coal and grain +2.6 %
Year Cumulative to Date -2.9 % +3.5 % +0.3 %

[click on graph below to enlarge]

z rail1.png

For the week ended February 10, 2018

  • Estimated U.S. coal production totaled approximately 15.2 million short tons (mmst)
  • This production estimate is 4.5% lower than last week's estimate and 6.6% lower than the production estimate in the comparable week in 2017
  • East of the Mississippi River coal production totaled 6.1 mmst
  • West of the Mississippi River coal production totaled 9.1 mmst
  • U.S. year-to-date coal production totaled 85.1 mmst, 7.7% lower than the comparable year-to-date coal production in 2017

Steven Hansen

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